CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. - It should have been an exciting day for the students of Woodmore Elementary School in Chattanooga on Tuesday. IT was the last scheduled day of classes headed into their Thanksgiving break, but it was overshadowed this week by a heartbreaking tragedy.
Monday afternoon, a bus carrying 36 students crashed, killing five and sending dozens more to the area’s Children’s Hospital.
The school district decided to open the school doors the day after the horrific crash because they said they hoped by community coming together, it would begin the healing. Special grief counselors were made available to the children throughout the day.
With heavy hearts, parents dropped off their children Tuesday morning. Doris Tony’s niece is a fourth grader. The aunt said the young girl spent the previous night calling out the names of her classmates who didn’t survive.
“I don't even know what to say to her. All I can do is hold and hug her and tell her I love her,” said Tony.
School officials said three of the victims were fourth graders, one was a first grader and the other student who died was just in Kindergarten. Their names have not officially been released by authorities as of Tuesday evening.
“It’s the toughest thing you will ever do in your life and there no words that you can say, but let me say that our hearts are going out to the families. This is the toughest thing you can do,” said Dr. Kirk Kelly, Hamilton County Schools Interim Superintendent.
Many parents said they were struggling to explain the situation to their children.
“That’s my hardest challenge. Is trying to figure out how I’m going to tell him before the funeral because I don’t want him to be like ‘I’m at a funeral now and, dad, you didn’t let me know anything,’” said parent Demetrius Jenkins.
City leaders said the entire town is praying for the victims and the survivors.
“The most unnatural thing in the world is for a parent to mourn the loss of a child. There are no words that can bring comfort to a mother or a father and so today the city is praying these families,” said Chattanooga Mayor Andy Burke.
About a mile's drive from the school, at the scene of the crash near the corner of Talley Road and Montview Drive, a makeshift memorial replaced the wreckage of the school bus which was hauled off early that morning. Flowers, stuffed animals and balloons were placed near the tree where the bus came to rest.
Debra Shaw came to the crash site to pay her respects. Like so many others in the close-knit community she learned she had a personal connection to the tragedy: some of the victims' families attended her church.
“I just pray for those mothers and fathers that sent their kids to school and waited on them and they didn't come home,” said neighbor Debra Shaw.
A little over a block away from Woodmore Elementary School, that same close-knit community gathered for an evening vigil at the Monumental Baptist Church. Pastor Rodrick Ware said he felt it was important for the community to have a place to come together, unite and begin to grieve. The pastor said this type of tragedy transcends social class, race, or occupation.
“We have children right now fighting for their lives. So there have been ministers at the hospital. We’ve been down at the school. We tried to get in everywhere we could, but it's an ongoing process for us right now. But yes, we have been in touch and tried to offer whatever prayers and support that we could,” said Pastor Ware. “When you see children die and the way they die and how they died, it touches all of us in a way that nothing else could have brought this community together like this.”
“Just amazing to see how people in this community respond,” said Senator Bob Corker, R-Tennessee.
Tennessee's junior senator attended the service after spending some time with some of the families still holding vigil for their family members at the hospital. He said he met one father who was playing with his two bandaged children injured in the crash who didn’t know about their sister yet.
“Their dad was with them and he had yet to tell them that their sister had passed away,” said the senator.
“I knew a lot of kids on that bus. I knew two of them that didn't survive,” said Quinnetta Caldwell as she walked into the vigil Tuesday night.
Caldwell said she met with the mother of a little boy killed in the bus crash before coming to the memorial service.
“He’s the only child and it's been a tough struggle, for that family? I have one child myself so it's pretty bad,” said Caldwell.
An eyewitness to the crash, Miss Careathers, said it was an important part of her healing process to come to the memorial service and said she wanted to share a special message to those this tragedy touched.
“I was at the scene when it happened and everything,” said Careathers. “I’d just like to say for them to keep praying and everything will be alright cause god he's a healer and he'll help you through all of this.”
The crowd released a dozen balloons into the air as a gesture of love for the children.
“We're showing love and we should, these were children you know, we should be here for them,” said Dutchess Lawrence.
A number of family members of children injured or killed in the crash were present and understandably did not want to speak publicly.
The pastor said healing will take time, but the community embracing each other for support will help.