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Patrice Gopher, 16, was one of the last ones to make it off the bus. She reached toward a motionless girl who lay face down on the floor to try and shake her awake. 'But they were like, 'No, don't touch her, don't touch her at all.' She was gone already.'
AP photo by Ashley Wolff
Patrice Gopher, 16, was one of the last ones to make it off the bus. She reached toward a motionless girl who lay face down on the floor to try and shake her awake. "But they were like, 'No, don't touch her, don't touch her at all.' She was gone already."

Lee High School students recall fatal bus ride to tech
Teens talk about feelings,
events leading up to wreck

By Desiree Hunter
Associated Press Writer

HUNTSVILLE — Through the school bus window, Rusty Moore saw the Toyota Celica approaching from behind, trying to pass but having trouble.

"I looked out my right side and I saw an orange car. It had swerved to the right, swerved to the left like it had lost control or whatever," Rusty said.

Then it hit the bus. "I just closed my eyes and grabbed onto the seat," he said.

The bus veered across lanes, smashing into the concrete railing of an overpass, ejecting the driver on impact and going over, a fatal plunge of 30 feet to a street below.

"I remember us going down because it felt like a roller-coaster," Rusty said.

'It was just crazy because it was like a jigsaw puzzle - everybody right there together,' said LaWanda Jefferson, 16. 'The bus was coming down, seats were going up and the glass was breaking out. ... Everybody was just right there together, falling on top of each other and everything.'
AP photo by Ashley Wolff
"It was just crazy because it was like a jigsaw puzzle - everybody right there together," said LaWanda Jefferson, 16. "The bus was coming down, seats were going up and the glass was breaking out. ... Everybody was just right there together, falling on top of each other and everything."
Four students killed

The Nov. 20 crash killed four of the 40 Lee High School students on their way to a technology center. For Rusty and other teenagers who were on the bus, there is no escaping the horror of crashing over that interstate railing.

"It was just crazy because it was like a jigsaw puzzle — everybody right there together," LaWanda Jefferson said. "The bus was coming down, seats were going up and the glass was breaking out. ... everybody was just right there together, falling on top of each other and everything."

"I thought I was like, dreaming," said Freddie Washington.

Backpacks flew around the bus and glass from the shattering windows cut students who were catapulted from their seats. Shoes flew off.

Patrice Gopher lunged for best friend Deanna Mitchell, but it all happened too fast, she said, and she couldn't reach her. Rusty said he reached out and grabbed onto Isha Key Bennett, keeping her from going forward. Freddie said he tried to do the same for his friend Mookie, but couldn't as she hurtled past him.

When the bus crashed, Freddie said, it was "like something had exploded."

For a moment, the screaming stopped.

"The wind got knocked out of me," said Rusty.

Everybody was just "kind of knocked unconscious," Freddie said.

Regaining consciousness

When Patrice came to, she gingerly opened her eyes. She had gone from being in the middle and right side of the bus to being on the left side a few seats behind the bus
driver's seat. With the impact, many of the students were pitched and piled up toward the front.

"I thought I was dead when I hit that window," Patrice said, the wonder still in her voice. "I guess it knocked me out real good because when I woke up I was like 'OK, are you for real? I'm still alive?' "

Some of the students began leaving through the first of two emergency exits in the bus's ceiling. But Rusty made his way to the back, where the two big doors had been smashed open and dangled crookedly from their hinges.

He was still short of breath, but helped a friend off the bus, then kept her company as she lay injured on the grass, soon covered with a white sheet.

Cell phones were found and frantic, tearful calls were made to family and friends as emergency workers and bystanders hurried to the wreckage and sirens began to wail. Two students — Nicole Sharika Ford, 19, Christine Collier, 16 — died at the scene. Tanesha Estella Hill, 17, and Crystalle Renee McCrary, 17, died later at a hospital.

"It was just horrible, blood was everywhere," Freddie said. "I laid down as soon as everybody got off the bus."

Patrice was one of the last ones to make it off the bus. She reached toward a motionless girl who lay face down on the floor to try and shake her awake.

"But they were like, 'No, don't touch her, don't touch her at all,' " Patrice said. "She was gone already."

Aftermath

Freddie, LaWanda and Patrice — all 16 — are still at home recuperating, but Rusty, also 16, is back at school. He says he won't be riding the bus on the five-mile ride from Lee High to the technology center anymore, opting to ride with friends instead.

Of the four, LaWanda is the only one who says she might ride the bus to the technology center again one day.

That cold, crisp morning of Nov. 20, it all seemed so routine. Two golden yellow buses line up in the tree-lined parking lot, engines idling, to take about 60 students to the Huntsville Center for Technology, a 15-minute ride that students usually enjoy as a break in the day.

A shrill bell rings at 10 a.m., signaling the end of second period, and dozens of students begin filing out of the brick buildings, pouring into the parking lot to decide how they'll get to "tech."

Conclusions — based on whose car has gas and who drove the last time — are reached.

Some drive their own cars or ride with friends. Forty board bus No. 5037.

One 17-year-old student decides to drive his orange 1990 Toyota Celica, and one of his friends rides with him.

But about 10 minutes after leaving the parking lot, the bus and the Celica converge on the overpass.

According to investigators, the Celica might have had a malfunction in its steering system, which led the young driver to lose control of the car and sideswipe the bus, sending the 18,000-pound vehicle slamming into a 32-inch-high concrete barrier, and over it.

That investigation continues.

Sense of normalcy

Now, at Lee High, the sense of normalcy school officials have been trying to cultivate is slowly coming back, as are several of the injured students, with their wheelchairs, braces and bruises.

The ribbing and roughhousing has returned to the school's parking lot, where the buses to tech now pick up students and drive a different route.

In the parking lot, on a recent afternoon, the resilience of youth is evident.

A girl hits a boy with her book bag, then runs away giggling.

She has a cream-colored brace around her middle. He has a white brace on his ankle.

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

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