Lulled asleep by the humming of their Texas-bound charter bus returning from a trip to Disney World, members of a high school band were jarred awake before dawn Tuesday when the vehicle ran off a highway and plunged into a ravine more than 50 feet 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, Ala., and Pensacola, Fla.
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 Houston’s 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 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 school district said 40 students and six adults from the school were on 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.
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, said his daughter, 18-year-old trumpet player Makena Campa, was on the bus with her mother. He spoke with both 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.”
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 Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration gives First Class Tours a satisfactory rating, meaning that records show no evidence of substantial noncompliance with safety requirements.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records show that in the last two years, the carrier has been involved in four accidents 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.