My heart is hurting. We’re still trying to recover from the terrorist attack of July 16, 2015. Five of our finest servicemen were gunned down just sixteen months ago in our backyard, near one of our busiest highways. Let’s face it, we still haven’t made sense of that horrible act. We will always honor their service, and their courage. And now this. A school bus accident that has claimed the lives of five children at this writing. But as any teacher will tell you, they’re not just children. “They’re my babies,” they will say.
Woodmore Elementary School holds a special place in my heart. Tucked away in a residential neighborhood about a mile off of Brainerd Road, it is full of special people. My friends Penny King and Linda Land taught first grade at Woodmore for thirty-plus years. They, and many of their colleagues were the constants through more than a dozen principals and superintendents. Penny and Linda retired a few years ago, but they left something behind: their hearts. On Monday, November 21, 2016, just three days before Thanksgiving, their hearts were broken.
As you may know, I’m the lucky TV guy who gets to visit all the schools at one time or another. I’ve been to Woodmore on Dr. Seuss day, the day Amazon surprised the teachers with new learning tools, and the day we honored the high number of male faculty members (a rare gift at an elementary school). The new principal, Brenda Cothran, is a ray of human sunshine.
On this day like any other, thirty-five students hopped aboard Bus #366, toting lunchboxes, coats and backpacks to take home. For reasons yet to be determined, within a few short minutes, the bus crashed into a tree. Within moments, authorities were notified, and the scanner traffic began. “We’ve got a school bus accident on Talley Road.” Shortly afterward, “There are children on board,” and the call for emergency vehicles went out.
As we soon learned, this was not the harmless “bus slid into a ditch” accident call we hear quite frequently. The sound of sirens blanketed Brainerd Road, causing more than a few panicked phone call to news stations like mine. Had there been a shooting? Unfortunately, we’re used to that these days. We now know that what Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher called “our worst nightmare” had come true. This accident was serious. Interim Hamilton County Schools Supt. Dr. Kirk Kelly sent word to his School Board members and Central Office administrators: “We are facing a great tragedy.”
As my WRCB news crew arrived at the scene just minutes after the crash, emotions were running high. The sight of speeding emergency vehicles with flashing lights, and the sounds of sirens immediately brought July 16 (2015) to mind. Our unsung heroes, the first responders who see pain and suffering each day, were carrying an even greater burden than usual. They didn’t try to hide it.
It was heartbreaking to see family members work their way to the closest vantage point they were allowed, asking everyone coming their way, “Have you seen my baby?” Occasionally there were glimmers of hope. One Hispanic woman walked up the hill with her children, including one little boy whose face was heavily scratched. He was one of the lucky ones. Twelve of the thirty-five passengers had only minor injuries.
The next person I saw was State Rep. Joanne Favors, who represents the Woodmore community in the Tennessee Legislature. She is a retired nurse, and has surely seen a lot of pain and suffering in her lifetime. We embraced. She was speechless. What I’m about to say is meant as a compliment: Joanne Favors is rarely speechless. She radiates love, with an extra helping of personality. But on this day, at this time, she could not speak. Nor could I.
Before long, a group of school officials, government leaders, and police officers stepped up to address reporters for the first time since the crash occurred about two hours earlier. As they approached the microphones, their body language spoke volumes. This was the press conference no one wants to be a part of. This was the crisis they frequently prepare for, but openly hope they never have to address. This was real. This was painful.
Looking at Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, again I was reminded of last year’s terror attack. I hadn’t seen those “faces” since then, and hoped I would never see them again. Chief Fletcher shared the bad news: Twenty-three children required medical attention, and as we feared, some didn’t make it out of the bus alive.
For the second time in sixteen months, Chattanooga was on the national news. Once again, there were multiple fatalities, with Innocent victims. This time they were children. No, they were babies.
I don’t use that term loosely, or facetiously. I constantly see middle and high school teachers refer to their students as “My babies.” They mean it. At Woodmore, like many elementary schools, teachers and staff members serve as mommies, nurses, counselors, and encouragers. They take care of their babies, and they celebrate every accomplishment. They’re very protective of their babies. Now, as they grieve together, they must help Woodmore’s students learn lessons more powerful than anything in the math curriculum. It won’t be easy, but I know they’re up to the challenge.
As I write this, all we have are numbers, and even those are unofficial. Soon, maybe by the time you read this, we will have the children’s names, and photographs. Our tears will flow again as we see their faces, and learn about their families and their dreams. Our hearts will break all over again.
As always, Chattanooga, along with our surrounding cities and counties, and strangers from far away will give blood, help with medical and funeral expenses, and shower the Woodmore family with love. It’s what we do. We will also watch with interest, as our questions slowly get answered. We want to know how it happened, why it happened, and how we can keep it from happening again.
What else can we do? We can give our own babies a hug every chance we get, no matter how old they are. They’re still our babies. And we can send up a prayer for these heartbroken families in the depths of despair.
From David Carroll's ChattanoogaRadioTV.com