LOXLEY, Ala. (AP) — One minute members of the Texas high school band were sleeping soundly on an early morning bus trip home from a much-anticipated trip to a music festival at Disney World. The next minute their bus was plunging into a ravine so steep rescuers had to rappel down to them.
The crash tossed students around the vehicle and killed the driver.
Relatives identified the driver, Harry Caligone, as a caring man who was “dedicated to his job.” About three dozen others on the bus were hurt, six seriously, authorities and the bus company said. Interstate 10 was blocked for hours where the accident occurred between Mobile, Alabama, and Pensacola, Florida.
The cause of the crash wasn’t immediately known, but survivors from Channelview High School in metro Houston described being asleep one moment and tumbling through the air the next.
Student DeWayne Benson, 15, told KTRK-TV by telephone he awoke to hear the band director repeatedly say “Harry” before the bus hit a series of bumps followed by one “huge bump.”
“Some students were stuck under seats, some were on top of other students and there’s a lot of panic to get people out,” said Benson, who was taken to a hospital but wasn’t injured.
Students used cellphones as lights to get out and grabbed blankets to help people outside, he said. Temperatures were in the 40s at the time of the wreck, which happened around 5:30 a.m.
First responders used ropes to rappel down the more than 50-foot (15-meter) ravine in the middle of I-10 and then had to cut some of the victims from the wreckage, said Baldwin County Sheriff Huey Hoss Mack. The bus could be seen on its side at the bottom of the ravine, part of its undercarriage and wheels mangled.
The Channelview Independent School District said 40 students and six adults from the school were on board. Medical officials said at least 37 people, most of them teenagers, were treated at hospitals or other facilities in Pensacola and southwest Alabama for injuries that ranged from minor to very serious.
The sheriff said it wasn’t immediately clear what caused the bus to enter the grassy median, which abruptly ends at a steep embankment where the interstate passes over Cowpen Creek. First Class Tours Inc., the bus operator, said Caligone was a longtime driver with the company.
His sister-in-law, Angela Caligone, 58, of Houston, said Caligone had been a bus driver for 20-plus years, the last 15 years with this same company. She said he had just passed his physical with “flying colors” and recalled him as “dedicated to his job, dedicated to his kids.”
Channelview High’s graduates include University of Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, who tweeted: “Wow, praying for everyone involved! #PrayforChannelview.”
Josh Torres said his 17-year-old sister, Bianca Torres, was sitting at the rear of the bus when the impact of the wreck tossed her forward several rows. She had pain in her legs and bruising but was otherwise unscathed and taken to a hospital for evaluation, he said.
“All that she remembers is that she felt a bump, then a crash and then the bus flipping onto its side,” Torres said.
Chris Elliott, a county commissioner where the crash happened, said everyone was taken to the hospital to be checked out.
Torres said his brother, also a member of the Channelview band, was on another bus not involved in the accident. That bus stopped after the crash, but did not allow the students to get off, and eventually continued on to Channelview, a Houston suburb of about 38,000. It arrived at the high school there Tuesday afternoon with a police escort. The bus drove past a throng of reporters and into a part of the campus out of public view.
Only hours before the crash, the band’s Facebook page had been updated to show a large group posing outside Disney World, where the band performed at a music festival Saturday.
DeWayne Benson’s mother, Frances Dodson-Benson, said they left last Thursday and had been expected to arrive home Tuesday afternoon. She said her son had been excited about the upcoming trip and right up until he called her in the minutes after the crash, everything had been going well.
“The first words out of his mouth were ‘Mom, I’m OK,'” she said. “I just think they are all going to be somewhat traumatized.”
The bus charter company pledged to help local authorities investigating the crash in a statement that offered prayers for the injured and their families. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration gives First Class Tours a satisfactory rating, meaning records show no evidence of substantial non-compliance with safety requirements.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records show that in the last two years, the carrier has been involved in four crashes prior to Tuesday’s crash, with one of those one involving one fatality.
Reeves reported from Birmingham, Alabama, and Anderson from Loxley. Associated Press contributors include Bill Kaczor in Pensacola, Florida; David Warren in Dallas; Michael Graczyk in Channelview, Texas; Rebecca Santana in New Orleans; and Jamie Stengle in Dallas.