Bus driver pleads guilty in Tennessee rail tragedy

Posted on March 1, 2004

BENTON, Tenn. — Rhonda Cloer, the driver in a Tennga, Ga., school bus accident in which three children were killed, has been sentenced to a four-year prison term but will likely be out in 90 days.

Cloer entered guilty pleas Jan. 26, a day before she was set to go on trial, to three counts of criminally negligent homicide and four counts of reckless aggravated assault.

“I never meant to hurt any of those kids,” Cloer said after the judge accepted the agreement. “I love each and every one of them. Not a day goes by that I haven’t thought of them. I’m so sorry.”

In the March 2000 incident, Cloer, then a driver for Murray County Schools in Chatsworth, Ga., was driving a loaded bus when it was struck by a freight train. Three children were killed and four were severely injured, including Cloer’s own daughter.

A preliminary investigation indicated that Cloer did not stop at the railroad crossing as school buses are required by law to do. Additionally, a video recording revealed that the radio was playing loudly at the time of the accident.

The school bus was struck on the right side by a 33-car CSX freight train carrying automobiles from Cincinnati to Tampa, Fla. The force of the collision knocked the body off the chassis and dragged it nearly 100 yards down the track. The train eventually came to a halt about a half-mile from the point of collision. No gates, lights or bells marked the rural rail crossing.

Sonja Miller, whose 6-year-old daughter, Kayla Silvers, was killed in the crash, and other parents expressed disgust in court over what they said seemed like a light sentence. “She took my child away from me and she is going to get 90 days? What kind of justice is that?” she told the Chattanooga Times.

Cloer reportedly could have received up to 22 years in prison had she been convicted for the charges she originally faced — three counts of vehicular homicide, four counts of aggravated assault and 12 counts of failure to stop a school bus at a railroad crossing. However, the district attorney negotiated a settlement with Cloer’s attorney instead of taking the case to trial.

Miller and other parents have filed a lawsuit against Cloer and Murray County Schools seeking unspecified damages. The parents did receive payments from the railroad’s insurance company in a confidential settlement.

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