Crew watches in 'helpless horror'

Three students killed in school bus-train collision; NTSB investigates bus driver

Two crew members on a freight train say they watched in helpless horror as a school bus sped toward a crossing in the seconds before it was struck by the train's locomotive.

The accident happened the morning of March 28 in Tennga, Ga., just north of the Tennessee-Georgia state line. Three children were killed and five others injured, including the bus driver. Two children remained in critical condition on April 1, according to a wire service report.

The engineer and conductor on the CSX train said they watched helplessly as the bus sped toward the railroad crossing, said Ken Suydam, investigator in charge for the National Transportation Safety Board.

"Both saw the bus approaching at a rapid rate of speed and expressed concern to each other as to whether the bus would stop," he said at a news conference.

Investigators said the school bus did not stop at the rail crossing, but that drivers cannot adequately see an approaching train at that crossing.

"We've come to the preliminary conclusion that the bus did not stop at the crossing prior to entering it," Suydam said.

Investigators also said that the horn on CSX train sounded for at least eight continuous seconds before the collision. They said a radio was on inside the bus and there were several conversations taking place.

According to the Tennessee Highway Patrol report, school bus driver Rhonda Cloer failed to obey traffic signs posted at the railroad crossing and did not observe other warnings, such as the train's whistle blowing.

The manufacturer examined the bus' anti-lock braking system and reported it was working properly.

Cloer, released from a hospital on March 29, still refuses to be interviewed by authorities. Her 5-year-old daughter was on the bus and was one of the two children in critical condition.

The train was traveling about 50 mph and first blew its whistle about 1,000 feet from the crossing and again continuously at 620 feet away, said NTSB investigator David Rayburn. The emergency brake was applied at 160 feet away.

The impact ripped the body of the bus from its chassis and dragged it 100 yards. Three children and the driver were ejected, and four other children remained inside the bus.

School buses are required by law to stop between 15 and 50 feet from railroad crossings.

Authorities won't decide whether to file charges until they finish the investigation, which could take two more weeks, said Highway Patrol Lt. Mike Walker.

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