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Survivor: School Bus Seat Belt Saved Her Life

Posted at 6:07 PM, Feb 22, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-22 19:38:26-05

She was an 8-year-old girl who survived the deadly crash of a school bus with a train.

Now, 16 years later, Brittany Gaddis is finally speaking out about the need for seat belts on school buses.

"I was lucky, I guess, just for one decision -- to decide to buckle up -- that saved my life," Gaddis said in her first time to talk about the March 28, 2000, crash.

It comes as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, after years of study, is finally recommending that all school buses should be equipped with lap and shoulder belts.

NewsChannel 5's Investigative Reporter, Phil Williams, discussed the story on Facebook Live.

NC5_Phil Williams talked about his investigation into why school buses still don't have seat belts.

Posted by NewsChannel5.com on Monday, February 22, 2016

The crash -- in Polk County, Tennessee, on the Tennessee-Georgia line -- may be key evidence for that debate.

There were seven students on the bus.

Three died.

Three were seriously hurt.

And then there was Brittany.

"I had a gut feeling, a bad feeling that I didn't want to go," she recalled.

Video from that crash shows what became a real-life test of seat belts on school buses.

About a minute after Brittany boarded the bus, the train's lights are seen reflecting off one child's face.

Suddenly, the tape cuts off.

"The next stop was when the train hit the bus. I'm waking up. The front of the bus is gone, and then there's the train, like there," Brittany said, gesturing to show that the train ended up being right in front of her face.

"I went out, but I had to like hold on to the train so I could step out of the bus."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "And what was that like for such a little girl?"

"Terrifying," she answered, her voice cracking. "No kid should have to go through that -- or their parents."

Brittany said that her first thought was for her best friend Kayla -- a little girl seen on the video excitedly running to the back of bus despite Brittany's plea for her to sit up front.

It's a regret that she still carries with her to this day.

"I should've tried harder to get her to come up there with me and maybe she would still be here," Brittany said, as tears rolled down her face.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted, "That's a lot of pressure for an eight-year-old girl to put on herself."

"Yeah," she admitted, "and then, like, you have to carry that with you all throughout life."

But it wasn't just where the seats were located that made a difference.

The seat that Brittany chose just happened to have a lap belt.

"I thought it was kind of cool that it had seat belts 'cause like normally most of the seats didn't have seat belts and I wanted to sit there and buckle up -- just to see what it was like to buckle up on a bus," she remembered.

Animation from the National Transportation Safety Board shows how the collision occurred, violently ripping the passenger compartment of the school bus off its frame.

Another animation shows how Brittany's seat belt kept her from being catapulted across the aisle.

"I just remember waking up and the seat belt had just a little bit of threat left on it that was holding it together," she recalled.

Her only injury: a bruise across her lower abdomen from the seat belt.

While the other survivors were critically injured, Brittany spent just one night in the hospital.

When NewsChannel 5 Investigates first discovered this case more than a decade ago, lead investigator Cheri Morgan asked: "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?"

But 16 years after that ride to school turned to tragedy, most school systems still haven't put seat belts on school buses, arguing it's just not worth the money.

For those who say seat belts are expensive, Brittany said: "It saves lives. I mean either spend money or lose your child. I mean, which one would you rather do?"

The recommendation from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is just a recommendation.

Tennessee lawmakers are expected to take up the issue again later this session.