As an Ohio high school mourns three students, two parents and a teacher killed in a crash this week, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board on Wednesday called the 43,000 annual deaths on American roads “a public health crisis.”
More than 50 students in a high school band and chaperones were traveling to a performance Tuesday morning in a charter bus that became entangled in a burning wreck on Interstate 70 in Etna, about 20 miles from their destination in Columbus, state authorities said.
Sixteen NTSB representatives were at the crash site Wednesday, including nine investigators and two members of the agency’s family assistance program.
“Forty-three thousand people die on our roads annually,” NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy told reporters. “We have a public health crisis headed our way. And we need all hands on deck here. We need to act to save lives.”
Homendy expressed frustration that NTSB safety recommendations issued over the years are not always implemented. “We’ve literally given units a road map on how to save lives,” she said. “Change doesn’t happen.”
Tuscarawas Valley High School seniors John W. Mosley and Jeffery D. Worrell, both 18, and sophomore Katelyn Owens, 15, were killed, district Superintendent Derek Veransky said. (Authorities previously gave a different spelling of Mosley’s name.) Three adults — teacher Dave Kennat, 56, and parents Kristy Gaynor, 39, and Shannon Wigfield, 45 — followed the bus in a separate vehicle and also died, the School and Highway Patrol said civil servants.
The crash involved five vehicles: two passenger cars, the student charter bus, a tractor-trailer and another commercial motor vehicle, according to Homendy.
Homendy said investigators have data recorders from some vehicles as well as dashcam footage from others that were not involved in the crash. The collision happened an hour after another crash that backed up traffic on the highway, she said. There were no seat belts on the motor vehicle except for the driver.
“I’m a mother and I have a 15-year-old daughter,” the NTSB chair said, sounding emotional at times. “And then when I look at the vehicles or I look at the road conditions … you can’t help but think about the kids that were involved, their families.”
Homendy praised “Good Samaritans” and first responders who rushed to the scene after the crash, including a group of local officers who were on their way to a training session at the time.
The students who died were “bright lights full of life who lost their lives far too young,” the superintendent said.
“Today started as an exciting day as our high school band would be traveling to Columbus to present at the Ohio School Boards Association conference – a one-of-a-kind event – and then quickly turned into the darkest day, one of the darkest days in the history of our district and the worst day of my life,” Veransky said during a vigil Tuesday night in Zoarville, Ohio.
Barbara Perenic/The Columbus Dispatch/AP
The scene of the fatal five-vehicle crash Tuesday morning on Interstate 70 near Columbus, Ohio.
Two of the district’s band directors, Merri Gensley and Stephen Tripp, served as “heroes” in the wake of the crash, working to get students off the bus “one-by-one,” district director of operations Mark Murphy said during the vigil.
Information on the number of injured has varied. The Ohio State Highway Patrol said 18 — including 15 students and the bus driver — were taken to hospitals. The school district said 20 of its students were taken to hospitals. As of Tuesday evening, only two students remained at the hospital with serious but non-life-threatening injuries, the district said.
The drivers of two other vehicles were also taken to local hospitals, the State Patrol said.
Schools in the district will remain open Wednesday, Veransky said, noting that students and staff can stay home if they want.
“We don’t want any kids home alone, so our doors will be open,” he said. “It will not be a typical school day. There will be many counselors and support staff from other community organizations here.”
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine called the incident “the worst nightmare families can endure” and has ordered flags on government buildings in the state capital and in Tuscarawas County to fly at half-staff in honor of the victims.
At an event Wednesday marking the 90th anniversary of the Ohio State Highway Patrol, DeWine asked for a moment of silence and prayer for the victims and families affected by the crash.
“There is no one in that community who does not feel this pain,” the governor said.
A team of NTSB investigators began analyzing the crash site Wednesday morning and will likely spend several days at the scene trying to determine how the crash unfolded, according to Homendy.
The team will look for evidence, including in-vehicle cameras and signs of whether any of the vehicles were carrying hazardous materials, she said.
While it’s still unclear how the wreck unfolded, officials have a rough idea of where the vehicles were when the incident occurred, Homendy explained.
“The motorcoach (carrying students) was westbound on I-70 near Etna. Behind the bus was an SUV with passengers traveling with the group on the bus,” she said. “They had approached a traffic jam that resulted of an earlier crash on I-70 and a tractor-trailer was approaching behind the SUV.”
Although it typically takes a year or more for the NTSB to issue its final investigative reports, Homendy said a preliminary report should be issued within the next few weeks, which will include factual information but no analysis.
The agency’s team also includes two staff members trained to work with victims’ families and survivors after major events, she added.
CNN’s Ray Sanchez, Amy Simonson and Macie Goldfarb contributed to this report.