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 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 county coroner identified the deceased boy as Kameron Johnson, 9.
The elementary-school age players from Orange Mound Youth Association in southeast Memphis were returning home after playing in a tournament in Keller over the weekend. It was the third year in a row the team played in the Big Texas National Championship. 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 was sitting in the first row when he said the bus swerved and then flipped numerous times.
“I saw the swerve and from then on she lost control of the bus and it started flipping. It started flipping down one hill, over a service road that was down below,” Hailey said.
Hailey said he doesn't know what caused the bus driver to lose control. He ended up near the front door and described what he and a team mom did to rescue the trapped children.
“Me and one of the team moms gathered them out. I got on the outside and she started handing them to me and the state troopers and state police was coming up and I was handing them to them,” Hailey said.
Hailey said there were seat belts on the bus, but he didn’t know how many people were wearing them.
Hailey injured his right leg, but said it could've been much worse.
“Right now I can barely walk. I can’t put any pressure on my right side,” Hailey said. “A lot of bruises and cuts.”
The organizer of the Big Tex event told FOX4 he's heartbroken over the loss of life and praying for the injured.
At a news conference in Memphis on Monday afternoon, Nickalous Manning, area superintendent of Aspire Public Schools, said Johnson attended an Aspire charter school and was "full of life, full of energy," died in the crash.
"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."
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.
Saline Memorial Hospital admitted a total 13 adults and children who were injured in the crash, Spokeswoman Rebecca Jones said. They were treated for bruising, lacerations and some orthopedic injuries then released.
The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences said the hospital received one adult patient who has not been discharged. A spokeswoman said she couldn't provide any details, citing privacy laws.
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," said Morgan, who also played on traveling football squads in his youth.
It "gives kids opportunity and brings the community together," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report