published Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

Family, Chattanooga Valley Elementary School grieve loss of 6-year-old struck, killed by bus

BUS SAFETY TIPS

The Georgia Department of Education provides the following safety rules for students getting off the bus:

• Make sure your book bag straps, purses, drawstrings, etc., do not get caught on the handrail or in the door.

• Walk straight toward the school. Don't run.

• Stay away from the bus, so your driver can see you.

• Keep walking until you are away from the "Danger Zone," an invisible circle about 12 feet in each direction away from the bus -- an area in which the bus driver may not be able to see you.

• Don't walk or run between a parked car or bus.

• If you drop an item or leave it on the bus, do not immediately go back to get it. Wave your hands above your head at the driver until the driver acknowledges you and invites to come back.

  • photo
    GSP Sgt. Tommy Sturdivan, left, speaks during a news conference after a 6-year-old male student was struck and killed by a school bus in front of Chattanooga Valley Elementary School on Monday.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
    enlarge photo

  • photo
    Site where a child was fatally struck by a bus at Chattanooga Valley Elementary School.
    Illustration by Laura McNutt.

FLINTSTONE, Ga. — On the steps of Chattanooga Valley Presbyterian Church, under a cover from the rain Monday morning, Pastor Daniel Gilchrist bowed his head.

"It is times like this that we become keenly aware of our weakness," he said.

"Keenly aware of our lack of understanding."

"Keenly aware of our lack of control."

Across the street, mothers and fathers with coats and umbrellas guided their waist-high children away from Chattanooga Valley Elementary School, toward cars and toward homes, away from what four hours earlier became an accident scene. At 7 a.m., minutes before the sun would rise and moments after a stream of boys and girls exited a bus, a Walker County Schools driver started his vehicle forward.

Soon, still in the Chattanooga Valley Elementary parking lot, the vehicle hit something.

A bump.

No, a boy. Six years old.

The boy, whose name was not released, died immediately, said Walker County Coroner DeWayne Wilson. The Georgia State Patrol is looking into the incident, but on Monday investigators declined to say how far in front of the bus the boy stood before the driver set the bus in motion.

They also declined to say who was behind the wheel.

"We do have the bus driver's name, obviously, and there has been a preliminary interview with him" Georgia State Patrol Sgt. Tommy Sturdivan said. "Because of the possibility of a follow-up interview, I don't want to give his name at this time."

Inside Chattanooga Valley Elementary, teachers and administrators covered windows Monday morning so the 460 students could not see the parking lot. But some children had been outside at the time of the crash, and for them Walker County Schools provided 12 counselors from nearby schools as well as a therapy dog.

And even though information about the crash remained scarce Monday, news of the student's death spread throughout the community. School remained in session for the day, but some parents wanted their children close and arrived to pick up them up early. By 11 a.m. the stream continued unabated.

And, across the street, outside the building where the victim's family gathered to console one another, a pastor prayed.

"Grant wisdom and understanding," Gilchrist said. "Father, for we cry out to you, as your children."

On Monday morning, Georgia State Patrol investigators gathered camera footage from inside the school bus and from a security camera that films the parking lot. They will review the tapes, interview more witnesses, make sure the bus was properly maintained and check the driver's personnel file before deciding whether to charge the driver with a crime.

  • photo
    The Walker County sheriff's chaplain arrives as emergency personnel work the scene where a student was struck and killed in front of Chattanooga Valley Elementary School on Monday.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
    enlarge photo

  • photo
    Emergency personnel work the scene where a student was struck and killed in front of Chattanooga Valley Elementary School on Monday.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
    enlarge photo

A tow truck pulled the bus away from the school. Investigators plan to examine the vehicle, checking to see if its brakes work properly.

Every year, according to a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 13 children and teenagers die as pedestrians in school transportation-related crashes. Locally, crash figures are more difficult to find.

Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson, who has been in office for 17 years, said he could not recall another time when a school bus struck and killed a student.

Hours after the incident, the sheriff and the coroner went to the victim's house. The boy's father was at work, but his mother was home. They told her the news.

"There was just no easy way," Wilson said of that task. "I hope and trust that the community will somehow find a way to support them. ... Today is just the first of many long days."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or at tjett@timesfreepress.com.

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