Driver dead, 20 students injured
CHANNELVIEW – Parents and school officials were shocked to hear early Tuesday morning that a chartered bus, with 46 students and adults from Channelview, had left the I-10 roadway in Alabama, and plunged down a 50 foot drop into a ravine, injuring most of the passengers and killing the bus driver.
Two buses, chartered from First Class Tours in Aldine, were bringing the Falcon band members back from a vacation and performance at Disney World park in Florida. It was the second, or trailing bus, that had the accident.
Authorities said that the scene did not show any indication that the bus tried to stop or swerve. The path led through the grassy median and over an embankment and a drop of over 50 feet into a ravine.
Alabama state trooper John Malone indicated that the driver, Harry Caligone may have been “unresponsive” prior to the crash, leading to speculation that he actually died of a medical problem such as a heart attack. However, family members said that he had recently passed a physical exam and was healthy.
The accident happened at about 5:30 a.m. Tuesday morning, while it was still dark. Authorities said that after the initial 9-1-1 calls, about a dozen fire and EMS departments responded from nearby cities, and about 5 helicopters were used to transport injured people. The bus held about 40 students, age 1518, and six adults. Those injured were taken to 10 area hospitals, according to later reports. Most victims were treated at Sacred Heart hospital in Pensacola, where two remained in serious but not life threatening condition.
Students reported that they were thrown through the air, landed on top of each other, or wedged under the seats. They used the light from cell phones to help get out of the overturned bus. It was dark, cold, and lonely at the bottom of that ravine.
Interstate I-10 was shut down in both directions during the rescue operation, and did not reopen for about 10 hours, causing massive traffic problems in Alabama and the Florida panhandle.
The lead bus, which had stopped briefly when the accident occured, continued westward and arrived in Channelview about 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, where it was met by parents and school officials.
Meanwhile, injured students had been taken to about 10 hospitals in the Mobile and Pensacola areas, and were later gathered at Coastal Church in Daphne, Alabama awaiting transportation back to Channelview. Many chose not to ride in a bus or car, and were put on planes. Others waited for their parents to arrive, and take them safely back home.
One of the more seriously injured passengers was the band director, Aaron Allison, with multiple injuries that required surgery. He had been the last person removed from the overturned bus, almost 3-1/2 hours after the crash.
Channelview ISD superintendent kept parents and media informed of news from the site, and the district issued the following statement:
“First and foremost, our thoughts and prayers go out to our students, employees, and families that have been affected by this tragedy. As you are well aware, a charter bus carrying Channelview High School band students was involved in an accident returning from Florida early this morning. At this time, we have been able to confirm that 40 students and 6 adults from Channelview were on the bus at the time of the accident. We are aware of numerous injuries. We are now focused on getting everyone back safely to our community. We are extremely grateful for the first responders, hospital employees, and volunteers from churches and schools in Alabama and Florida that have stepped up to help our students and comfort them though this difficult situation. Those communities have opened their hearts and arms to our children and employees. They have provided resources, support, and a safe and welcoming environment while we work through the logistics of reuniting our families. We also want to thank our state and local officials who have all reached out to help us. Governor Abbott, Senator Sylvia Garcia, Commissioner Jack Morman, Representative Ana Hernandez, and Precinct 3 Constable Sherman Eagleton have all reached out to offer support and assistance.”
Authorities said that the bus company and the driver had better than average safety records, and their fleet of 58 buses seem to be well maintained. The company employs about 94 drivers, records show.