BLUFF CITY, Tenn. — Gail Pridemore, a school bus driver for Holston Bus Co., had stopped to pick up a student in front of his house on April 26 when a car failed to stop and struck the 12-year-old before fleeing the scene.
Pridemore said she had the bus' overhead lights on and stop sign activated when fifth-grader Charles Calvin Whitt, known as C.C., began to cross the street. As Powers approached, Pridemore tried to get the motorist's attention by waving her hands and yelling.
The oncoming vehicle struck the boy with the driver's side front bumper, throwing him onto the windshield and over the car, hitting the bus windows and landing near the rear of the bus, Pridemore relates. She immediately used her cell phone to call 911.
"I think his dad was the first one to get [to him]," Pridemore said. "I was right in front of his house."
Although the other children on the bus were upset, Pridemore says they seemed more shocked than panicked by the incident. "They were crying, but they were pretty calm, believe it or not," she says.
Whitt was transported to Johnson City Medical Center by helicopter with a broken left leg, broken collar bone, concussion, hairline fracture to his shoulder blade and bruising of his brain. Despite his injures, the boy was listed in stable condition and, as of May 2, remained in the hospital for recovery.
Holston Bus Co. sent a substitute to drive the rest of the children to school, and owner Kenny Morrell gave Pridemore a ride back to the company's lot to retrieve her car. Instead of driving home, she returned to the area of the accident and searched for the late-model maroon Toyota that had fled the scene. She said she felt compelled to find the hit-and-run driver.
"It was just like something was eating at me," Pridemore said. "You start to love these kids. It's as close to your own as you can get without it being your own."
After a friend living in the neighborhood tipped her off to the Toyota's location, Pridemore notified law enforcement.
Pridemore was able to recall a description of both the vehicle and the driver from what she saw in the moments before the impact, "It probably wasn't exact, but I thought my description was pretty close," she says. "I said late 30s, he was 33."
Her description helped Sullivan County police identify the driver and his car, which had been abandoned with its license plates removed.
The motorist, identified as James Gregory Powers, 33, was apprehended and charged with reckless aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, DUI fourth offense, failure to stop for a school bus, leaving the scene of an accident with serious injuries, tampering with evidence and driving uninsured.
A bus driver for 11 years, Pridemore credits the annual safety training she receives at Holston for preparing her for an emergency situation. "I always thought, 'I've been doing this for 11 years, I know it.' But it does kind of remind you to watch for stuff, like cars coming up too fast."
Like many drivers, Pridemore says that during the school year, she had come to know C.C. very well. She called the hospital in the days after the accident to find out about his condition and to speak to him and his parents. "He said he remembers everything," says Pridemore. "He remembers the car hitting him. He said he could see inside the bus, and he said all the kids had their mouths wide open."
Pridemore says her main concern in the aftermath of the accident is addressing the problem of motorists who ignore the flashing red lights and stop signs on school buses when a child is boarding or crossing the street. "Some kids are small, and they don't pay that much of attention," she said.