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Lee High School administrative secretary Jan Minor comforts student Talisha Rice at school Tuesday, as students grappled to come to terms with Monday's bus tragedy.
AP photo by Ashley Wolff
Lee High School administrative secretary Jan Minor comforts student Talisha Rice at school Tuesday, as students grappled to come to terms with Monday's bus tragedy.

Bus tragedy unites Lee High students
4th teen dies; 4 remain critical

By Desiree Hunter
Associated Press Writer

HUNTSVILLE — Lee High School, nestled deep in a quaint neighborhood of this city built on the space industry, attracts a range of students with its heavily sought college-prep courses and technical programs, such as cosmetology and car repair.

But while the magnet school draws the students together from their scattered neighborhoods, with the teens often tending toward cliques, including racial splits, a bond among them was formed for life Monday when a school bus carrying 40 students crashed on the way to a technical center, killing
four classmates.

"The closest I've ever seen Lee was yesterday," sophomore Megan Ford said. Her third cousin, Nicole Ford, was one of the four girls who died in the crash.

"It was black, white, all hugging and crying together. It didn't matter — it didn't matter at all what race we were, and we were all just telling each other that we loved them and that we cared," she said.

Nicole Ford, a 19-year-old senior, and Christine Collier, 16, a sophomore, were killed at the scene. A third girl, senior Tanesha Hill, 17, died Monday at the hospital from her injuries, and a fourth, Crystal Renee McCrary, 17, died Tuesday at Huntsville Hospital.

Four people remained in critical condition Tuesday night.

They included the bus driver, who was severely injured but somehow was off the bus when it plunged about 30 feet down from the I-565 overpass.

Witnesses said a car struck the bus Monday morning on the overpass, causing it to swerve and plow into and over concrete railing, crashing nose-first into a street below.

One witness said the car hit the bus accidentally after possibly blowing a tire, while another said the car was speeding up and trying to get past the bus as lanes merged on the interstate ramp.

"He's real upset. He thinks it's his fault," said 17-year-old Chelsea Walker, who described herself as a friend of the car's driver. She said she had spoken to him Tuesday morning.

Authorities have not released the name of the driver in what police said is a criminal investigation. Police spokesman Wendell Johnson said evidence will be presented to a grand jury to decide if charges such as vehicular homicide or manslaughter are warranted.

He said a criminal investigation "does not mean a crime has been committed."

Witnesses say an orange Toyota Celica came up in a side lane, with the bus veering over the railing and crashing onto Church Street below.

Debbie Hersman, a spokeswoman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said the bus driver was found on the overpass, escaping the devastating impact that crumpled the front of the bus.

"We are trying to determine why the bus driver was on the overpass," she said at a news conference.

Brett Johnson, a Lee student who was in a car in front of the school bus, said the driver of his car, William Morgan, saw the Toyota coming up on the bus and told others to turn around and look, saying that the Toyota was not going to make it around the bus.

Johnson said the car didn't have enough space to get into the lane for the ramp and struck the bus toward its front. The car got shoved back and hit a concrete wall, Johnson said.

"The bus started swerving a little bit, like he hit the brakes and was trying to maintain control. Then it hit the wall and just flipped," he told The Associated Press.

Johnson said one of the others in the car reported seeing "a body in the air" before the bus went over the railing, but he and others in the car did not.

A Lee student who was in another car, behind the bus, told his parents that the Toyota bumped the bus accidentally.

"He said no one was playing around, nobody was speeding, nobody was going fast," Bonnie Sokolowski told the AP.

She said her 17-year-old son, Thad Sokolowski, gave this account: "The orange car was going to pass the bus. He thought something was wrong with the car, like his tire got blown out because it started fishtailing." She said the orange car did hit the bus "but not hard. It was a bump." Then the bus "skidded down the rail and it was gone."

Thad Sokolowski's description of the events Monday was first reported by The Huntsville Times. He gave that account to his parents and did not want to talk to reporters Tuesday, his mother said.

Hersman said the school bus driver remained hospitalized in serious condition. She said the NTSB hopes to be able to speak with him when his doctors feel his condition permits. His name has not been released.

Huntsville Hospital spokeswoman Pam Sparks said the driver and 14 students remained hospitalized Tuesday and four were listed as critical.

The police chief said the car's driver and a passenger have been interviewed.

The mangled school bus, which was not equipped with seat belts, was towed from the crash site Tuesday. Hersman said investigators will try to find out where each student was sitting and what happened to them as the bus went over the railing and crashed. She said the agency would determine if the highway railing met federal standards.

Hersman said at a news conference Monday night that the board last week added school bus safety to its list of most wanted transportation safety improvements. She said the board is recommending that new standards be devised to improve safety when buses are involved in rollover crashes.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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