Ohio school band students set off by bus for a performance. It ended in tragedy

A day which began with excitement ended tragically when a charter school bus was involved in a fiery crash on an Ohio highway. Now a community has been left mourning the six victims killed while questions are being asked about what exactly went wrong. Martha McHardy and Michelle Del Rey report

Wednesday 15 November 2023 17:37 GMT
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<p>Both directions of Interstate 70 are closed in Licking County, Ohio,  near the State Route 310 interchange after a fatal accident on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023. </p>

Both directions of Interstate 70 are closed in Licking County, Ohio, near the State Route 310 interchange after a fatal accident on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023.

It should have been a day filled with excitement for the 54 Tusky Valley Middle-High School students as they headed to a conference in Columbus, Ohio, for a performance by the school band.

But instead, it ended in tragedy when the charter bus the group was travelling in collided with a semi-truck on Tuesday morning.

Six people died in the horror crash, including three teenagers and three adults. Another 20 students were injured.

Five cars in total were involved in the crash, which was classed as a “mass casualty” event.

The National Transportation Safety Board is now probing what exactly happened, with investigators planning to visit the scene on Wednesday.

With the exact cause of the crash still unknown, many questions remain unanswered as to what happened.

Here’s what we know so far:

How did the crash unfold?

Around 55 people, including 54 students and a driver, were on board a charter bus headed westward towards Columbus when the vehicle was involved in a “chain-reaction crash” on Tuesday morning, Ohio State Highway Patrol said.

A semi-truck collided with the bus, hitting it from behind before bursting into flames, authorities said.

The crash happened at around 8.30am on Interstate 70 West close to the Smoke Road underpass in Licking County, about 40 miles northeast of Columbus.

Signs in support of the Tusky Valley Schools community can be seen in front of the elementary school shortly before a community prayer vigil

Three other vehicles were also involved in the crash.

Officials closed the highway in both directions for most of the day while crews cleaned up the site. By around 4.30pm it had been reopened on the Eastbound side, the Ohio Department of Transportation (DOT) said.

The bus was transporting students to the Ohio School Boards Association conference in Columbus at the time of the crash, where the school’s band was due to perform.

The conference was cancelled after news of the accident broke, a spokesperson for the association said.

Who are the victims?

Three teenagers – Katelyn Owens, 15, Jeffery Worrell, 18, and John Mosely, 18 – were killed in the crash, as well as high school teacher Dave Kennat, 56, and parent chaperones Kristy Gaynor, 39, and Shannon Wigfield, 45, who were travelling in a vehicle behind the bus.

All of the individuals killed were pronounced deceased at the scene.

Some 20 other students were transported to the hospital following the crash, 18 of whom have now been released with non-life-threatening injuries.

Top (L-R): Dave Kennat, Shannon Wigfield, and Kristy Gaynor. Bottom (L-R): John W. Mosely, Jeffery D. Worrell, and Katelyn N. Owens

Two others remain hospitalised with serious but non life-threatening injuries.

The incident was classified as a “mass casualty” event, The Columbus Dispatch reported, meaning that 10 or more people had been injured and needed emergency services to transfer them to local facilities for treatment.

At least 34 students were taken to the Etna United Methodist Church after the incident, where officials set up a reunification center for those not injured.

Don Hawkins, regional communications manager for the Red Cross, said the nonprofit fufilled a request for 30 units of blood from the Mount Carmel Health System, according to local reports.

Emergency responders are on the scene of a fatal Ohio crash

What caused the crash?

The exact cause of the bus crash remains unknown, but the National Transportation Safety Board said it is now investigating the incident and will visit the crash scene on Wednesday.

A preliminary investigation report is due to be published in a few weeks, said Jennifer Homendy, chair of the NTSB. A more in-depth investigative report on the crash will not be ready for another 12 to 18 months.

One line of the probe will likely be the safety of the charter bus, which belonged to Pioneer Trails, a bus company operating out of Millersburg.

The entity has a satisfactory safety rating, according to US Department of Transportation data.

Its vehicles have been involved in one other crash in the last 24 months; that crash resulted in one person being injured.

In a statement posted to Facebook, the business said it was cooperating with authorities to determine the cause of the crash.

On average, four motorcoach passengers die in bus crashes each year in the US, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows.

Community reacts to ‘dark day’

On Tuesday night, hundreds of community members gathered at the Tuscarawas Valley School District football stadium for a vigil to honour the six victims.

Speaking at the vigil, Dr Derek Varansky, the school district superintendent, described the crash as “devastating and heartbreaking”, calling it the “worst day of his life”.

“Right now, our focus is on getting in touch with our Tusky Valley families who had loved ones on the bus and providing support to our entire school community,” Dr Varansky said.

“Our Trojan family is strong, and it will take that strength and love to get throughout these coming challenging days.”

Six candles were lit at the vigil, one for each victim

The Ohio governor also paid tribute to the victims. “Fran and I are praying for everyone involved in the bus crash east of Columbus today,” he said.

“It is our worst nightmare to have a bus full of children involved in such a terrible crash, and it is certainly the worst nightmare that families and schools can endure,” he said on X.

A representative for Mr DeWine confirmed that the governor ordered all flags at the Ohio State Capitol and in Tuscarawas County to be lowered to half-mast to honour the victims of the tragedy.

A GoFundMe has been set up to support the families of the victims. As of Wednesday morning, it had reached almost $17,000 out of a $30,000 goal.

Dr Varansky said that the middle-high school would remain open on Wednesday, though it would not be a usual day.

Counsellors will be on site to provide support. Still, he emphasised that he would respect parents who decide to keep their children home instead.

“Today began as an exciting day,” he said, standing in front of a black table where six candles had been placed.

“And then it quickly turned into one of the darkest days in our district’s history.”

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