As an Ohio high school mourns three students, two parent chaperones and a teacher killed in a crash this week, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board on Wednesday called the 43,000 annual deaths on America’s roadways “a public health crisis.”
More than 50 students in a high school band and chaperones were traveling to a performance Tuesday morning in a charter bus that became entangled in a fiery wreck on Interstate 70 in Etna, about 20 miles from their destination in Columbus, state authorities said.
Sixteen NTSB representatives were at the crash site Wednesday, including nine investigators and two members of the agency’s family assistance program.
“Forty-three thousand people die on our roads annually,” NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy told reporters. “We have a public health crisis on our roads. And we need all hands on deck here. We need to take action to save lives.”
Homendy voiced frustration that NTSB safety recommendations issued over the years aren’t always implemented. “We’ve literally given entities a roadmap on how to save lives,” she said. “Change doesn’t occur.”
Tuscarawas Valley High School seniors John W. Mosley and Jeffery D. Worrell, both 18, and sophomore Katelyn Owens, 15, were killed, said district superintendent Derek Veransky. (Authorities previously provided a different spelling of Mosley’s name.) Three adults – teacher Dave Kennat, 56, and parents Kristy Gaynor, 39, and Shannon Wigfield, 45 – were following the bus in a separate vehicle and also died, school and highway patrol officials said.
The crash involved five vehicles: two passenger cars, the student charter bus, a tractor-trailer and another commercial motor vehicle, according to Homendy.
Homendy said investigators have data recorders from some vehicles, as well as camera footage from others not involved in the crash. The collision occurred an hour after another crash that backed up traffic on the interstate, she said. On the motor coach, there were no seat belts except for the driver.
“I’m a mom and I have a 15-year-old daughter,” the NTSB chair said, sounding emotional at times. “And so when I look at the vehicles, or I look at the roadway conditions … you can’t not think about the children that were involved, their families.”
Homendy praised “good Samaritans” and first responders who rushed to the scene after the crash, including a group of local officers headed to a training session at the time.
The students who died were “bright lights full of life who lost their lives way too young,” the superintendent said.
“Today began as an exciting day as our high school band would travel to Columbus to present at the Ohio School Boards Association conference – a once-in-a-lifetime event – and then it quickly turned into the darkest day, one of the darkest days in our district’s history and the worst day of my life,” Veransky said during a vigil Tuesday night in Zoarville, Ohio.
Two of the district’s band directors, Merri Gensley and Stephen Tripp, acted as “heroes” in the aftermath of the crash and worked to get students off the bus “one-by-one,” said district director of operations, Mark Murphy, during the vigil.
Details about the number of people injured have varied. The Ohio State Highway Patrol said 18 – including 15 students and the bus driver – were taken to hospitals. The school district said 20 of its students were taken to hospitals. As of Tuesday night, only two students remained in the hospital with serious but non-life-threatening injuries, the district said.
The drivers of two other vehicles were also taken to local hospitals, the state patrol said.
Schools in the district will remain open on Wednesday, Veransky said, noting students and staff may stay home if they want to.
“We don’t want any kids at home by themselves, so our doors will be open,” he said. “It will not be a typical school day. There will be many counselors and support staff from other community organizations here.”
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine called the incident “the worst nightmare that families can endure” and has ordered flags on government buildings at the capital and in Tuscarawas County to fly at half-staff in honor of the victims.
At a Wednesday event marking the 90th anniversary of the Ohio State Highway Patrol, DeWine asked for a moment of silence and prayer for the victims and families affected by the crash.
“There is no one in that community that is not feeling this pain,” the governor said.
Investigators to collect evidence at crash scene
A team of NTSB investigators began analyzing the crash scene Wednesday morning and will likely spend several days at the scene trying to determine how the crash unfolded, according to Homendy.
The team will look for evidence, including in-vehicle cameras and signs of whether any of the vehicles were carrying hazardous materials, she said.
While it is still unclear how the wreck unfolded, officials have a rough idea of where the vehicles were when the incident occurred, Homendy explained.
“The motorcoach (carrying students) was traveling westbound on I-70 near Etna. Behind the motorcoach was an SUV carrying passengers that were traveling with the group in the motorcoach,” she said. “They had approached a traffic queue that resulted from an earlier crash on I-70, and a tractor-trailer approached behind the SUV.”
While it typically takes a year or more for the NTSB to issue its final investigation reports, Homendy said a preliminary report should be issued within the next few weeks that will include factual information but no analysis.
The agency’s team also includes two personnel who are trained to work with victims’ families and survivors after significant events, she added.
CNN’s Ray Sanchez, Amy Simonson and Macie Goldfarb contributed to this report.