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NewsChannel 5 Investigates: Precious Cargo

School Bus Tape Offers New View of Seat Belt Debate

(Story created: 11/7/05)

It's been five years since a school bus crossed into a train's path down on the Tennessee-Georgia border. For the first time, NewsChannel 5 has obtained video from inside that bus.

And the lessons about what happened to it and its precious cargo are just as relevant today as ever.

On this tape, our chief investigative reporter Phil Williams found the story of two little girls. One's story will make you sad. But a key investigator says the other's story may also be a lesson for all of us.

***

March 28, 2000 -- a school bus crosses into the path of a speeding train.

That morning, the seven children on the bus would not make it to school.

Three would never make it back home.

But, for the first time, this videotape from the crash shows how quickly a day just like any other day can become a day like no other day.

"I've watched that tape a hundred times, and every time I see those little faces just before their deaths," says investigator Cheri Carroll-Morgan.

Morgan recovered the tape from a camera mounted inside the bus.

"I see children putting their books away, putting their book bags away," she says, describing the tape. 

"One of the victims hid from one of the other boys when he got on the bus to scare him when he go on.

"One little girl was all excited. She was going on a field trip.... And she actually skips down the aisle of the bus."

Carroll-Morgan adds, "That's the way you want your children to be.  You want them to be happy and safe on a school bus."

But that all changed... literally in the blink of an eye.

"The tape cuts off," Carroll-Morgan says.

"That's the crash?" Phil Williams asks.

"That's the crash."

Animation from the National Transportation Safety Board shows how the bus' passenger compartment was ripped off its frame.

As Morgan took yet another look at the tape -- this time in slow-motion -- she suddenly saw the crash through the eyes of one little girl, 9-year-old Amber Pritchett.

"When you stop the tape and look at it frame by frame... you see these big train lights bouncing off this child's head literally.

"You see absolute fear, and she grabs the seat. She's trying to brace herself."

"When I showed her mother that videotape, her mother knew immediately that she saw it coming."

In fact, take a close look. And in the very last frame of video -- just outside the school bus windows -- you'll see the front of the train.

"I was shocked that anyone survived."

But the tape doesn't just tell Amber's story. 

On this bus, the first two rows had seat belts. And on that day, a little girl named Brittany sat down and buckled up.

"She's the only person that had a seat belt on in this wreck."

The investigator says it was only the second day that Brittany Gaddis had ridden the school bus

And on that day, the little 8 year old did what she'd always been taught to do.

"She says that she sits down on the front row. She puts her seat belt on.

"All of a sudden comes to this jolt.

"The bus has been literally cut in half right there where she is sitting.... And there's this train.  It's like a wall right in front of her.  She could have reached out and touched it going by."

Animation from federal safety investigators shows the child in front of Brittany was violently thrown out the front of the bus.

But Brittany's seat belt held her in place.

"I was shocked that anybody survived it.  And certainly one child who walked away from the wreck because she had on a seat belt."

Carroll-Morgan says that, while Amber's story probably would have ended the same with or without a seat belt, Brittany's story ends the way all parents would hope -- if tragedy ever slams into the side of their child's school bus.

"If a child can survive a collision with a train with a bruise across the belly, then why in the world do we not have seat belts on every single seat?"

And that's just the question we'll investigate.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates: Precious Cargo
(Part 2) School Bus Safety Standards Called 'Incomplete'
(Part 3) Experts Say Lap-Shoulder Belts Could Reduce Injuries
(Part 4) Lawmakers Forget Study of Seat Belts on School Buses
(Part 5) Lessons From Deadly School Bus Crash Go Unlearned

More information:
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration position paper -- Defends compartmentalization (the current safety standard)
NHTSA's Report to Congress -- Finds some potential benefits to lap-shoulder belts
National Transportation Safety Board study -- Finds compartmentalization "incomplete"
NTSB investigation -- Report of bus-train collision reaffirms limits of compartmentalization
School Transportation News -- Analysis of seat belt debate
National Coalition for School Bus Safety -- Position of advocacy group
Safeguard -- Web site of seat belt developer
State of Missouri -- Gov. Matt Blunt pushes lap-shoulder belt on new buses

Contact the governor
Contact state senators
Contact state representatives

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