A third grader was killed and at least 45 people were injured when a charter bus carrying youth football players from Tennessee rolled off an interstate and overturned before sunrise Monday in central Arkansas, authorities said.
Arkansas State Police said the bus crashed along Interstate 30 near Benton, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) southwest of Little Rock. Police said most of the injured were children and that they were taken to hospitals in Little Rock and Benton.
The elementary-school age players from Orange Mound Youth Association in southeast Memphis were returning home after playing in a tournament in the Dallas area over the weekend, according to Memphis TV station WMC. Orange Mound is a historically black neighborhood that unites around its highly competitive youth football program.
Damous Hailey, who was one of about half a dozen adults on the bus, said it was carrying players from 10 Orange Mound Youth Association football teams who played in all-star squads in a tournament in Texas.
He told The Commercial Appeal newspaper that the bus swerved then flipped “about 15 or 20 times,” before stopping at the foot of a hill.
“When the bus started flipping, the kids were hollering, and we were trying to calm them down,” he said in an interview from Saline Memorial Hospital, where he was treated for injuries to his right side and leg. “I was holding on, trying to make sure I didn’t get thrown out.”
Teams and coaches affiliated with the Orange Mound Youth Association have not returned phone calls and emails seeking comment.
At a news conference in Memphis Monday afternoon, Nickalous Manning, area superintendent of Aspire Public Schools, said a third grader from an Aspire charter school who was “full of life, full of energy,” died in the crash. He did not reveal the child’s name.
“When we talked to teammates here, you saw on their faces about what that young person meant to them, the impact that he had on the school community,” Manning said. “This is going to be a loss that’s going to be hard to heal from.”
Students from five Achievement School District facilities in Memphis were also on the bus, according to district spokesman Bobby White.
Authorities haven’t talked about what caused the crash that happened under the cloak of darkness. Images from the scene showed the heavily damaged bus on its side on an embankment near some dense woodland, just at the crook of a sharp bend in the road. The bus was hoisted upright and pulled from the scene late Monday morning.
The bus driver was being questioned by troopers.
Dr. Todd Maxson, surgeon in chief and trauma medical director at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock, said 22 of the 26 children aged 9 to 13 who were admitted to the facility had been released by late Monday afternoon. He said the four remaining children were stable and expected to fully recover from their injuries.
Maxson said some of the children suffered injuries to the brain or other internal organs, while others suffered cuts and broken bones. He said two of the kids underwent emergency operations and were stable.
No information about the status of injured passengers being treated at hospitals elsewhere has been released.
It is unclear if seat belts were provided for the bus passengers. Lawmakers in Tennessee tried but failed to introduce regulations in 2017 requiring seat belts in new school buses. The bus in Monday’s crash was a charter bus.
Orange Mound was created after the Civil War by and for African-Americans, and black-owned businesses flourished there until desegregation enabled residents to live elsewhere. Chronic disinvestment brought widespread crime and poverty.
One resident, Carlos Morgan, told The Associated Press that the youth football program is vital in a neighborhood where youths can so easily be lured into drugs and crime.
“It helps keep kids out of trouble, opens up opportunities to go pro and things like that,” said Morgan, who also played on traveling football squads in his youth.
It “gives kids opportunity and brings the community together,” he said.
A speeding bus filled with school children crashed in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in November 2016, leaving six students dead. Prosecutors said the driver was on the phone at the time of the crash. He was convicted in March this year on six counts of criminally negligent homicide, 11 counts of reckless aggravated assault and seven counts of assault.