Lulled asleep by the humming of their Texas-bound charter bus following a trip to Disney World, members of a high school band were jarred awake before dawn Tuesday when the rig ran off a highway and plunged into a ravine more than 50 feet (15 meters) deep.
One person died, driver Harry Caligone, and about three dozen others were hurt, mostly teenagers, 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.
“Then there was a loud, really huge crash that was presumably when the bus finally came to a stop,” Frances Dodson-Benson said after talking to her 15-year-old son DeWayne Benson. “There were students on top of students, the bags, it was just a disarray, a lot of commotion, a lot of panic.”
First responders used ropes to rappel down the 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 Channelview Independent School District said 40 students and six adults from the school were on board the bus. State troopers said the driver was killed, and 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, identified Caligone as a longtime driver with the company.
The crash happened around 5:30 a.m., crunching the bus and leaving the passengers exposed to chilly temperatures.
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.
Dodson-Benson said her son, a sophomore who plays bass clarinet, used a borrowed phone to tell her he was OK. Dodson-Benson said her son was sleeping when he was awakened by the bus hitting “some sort of hard bumps.”
Jesus Tejeda came upon the scene as he drove to work, finding dozens of police cars and ambulances stopped on the highway near the overpass. He looked down to see the bus lying on its side near the base of a concrete embankment, its front end crumpled.
Tejeda said he watched four people being removed from the wreckage, and couldn’t hear any yelling or sounds of panic. “Thank God they were alive but (they) had to take them on (a) helicopter,” he said in an interview conducted by instant messages.
Norman Haynes of Victoria, Texas, said his daughter, 18-year-old trumpet player Makena Campa, was on the bus with her mother. He spoke with both of them after the crash and was on his way to the hospital.
“My daughter was really groggy because they had her on some very heavy pain medication,” he said. “They sounded kind of shook up. I think I’d be shook up as well.”
The interstate was closed down in both directions as the injured were flown to hospitals including emergency rooms in Mobile and Pensacola, Florida, plus a free-standing emergency room in rural Baldwin County, said Chris Elliott, a Baldwin County commissioner.
“Everybody is being transferred to a hospital to at least be checked out,” said Elliott.
Torres said his brother, also a member of the Channelview band, was on another bus not involved in the accident. That bus stopped after realizing what happened, but did not allow the students to get off, and eventually continued on toward Channelview, a Houston suburb of about 38,000.
Outside their high school, still closed for spring break, police were stationed at every entrance and no one was available to speak.
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.
Channelview Independent School District spokesman Mark Kramer said the district was in contact with law enforcement in Alabama to get more information.
The bus charter company pledged to help local authorities investigating the crash in a statement that offered prayers for injured and their families. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration gives First Class Tours a satisfactory rating, meaning that 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.
The previous crash involving a fatality took place in May 2017 in Houston, when a bus failed to yield the right of way as it turned left and fatally struck a pedestrian in a crosswalk, according to a police report.
Reeves reported from Birmingham, Ala., 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.