LIBERTY CO., GA (WTOC) - One child was killed and several were injured in a crash Tuesday morning involving a school bus on Ray Road at West Highway 196 in the Gum Branch area of Liberty County, GA.
Over 20 people on the bus were taken to area hospitals, including the driver. Officials have confirmed that five-year-old Cambria Shuman has died.
The bus was headed to Taylors Creek Elementary School.
It took fire crews over an hour to extricate the driver, 62-year-old Evelyn Rodriquez, from the bus. She was transported to Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah. Rodriquez has been driving with the school system for seven years.
"Troopers have gone back to the hospital and spoken to her so they don't think that anything like that with alcohol or drugs or anything was involved," Lt. King said.
Multiple agencies from different counties responded.
According to Liberty County EMA Deputy Director Larry Logan, the school bus was traveling on Ray Road headed towards Hwy 196 W when it went off the road and into the ditch.
Georgia State Patrol says the bus went off the road and struck a tree. GSP says the video from inside the bus does not appear to show the driver under the influence, having a medical issue or having to swerve to avoid another vehicle or animal. They also stated they do not believe the early morning fog had any impact on the incident.
They think, at this time, it was a bus issue. Reportedly the bus driver can be seen on video trying to shift gears.
"The rear end of the bus struck a ditch and as she was trying to gain control, she was grabbing for the gear shift and the vehicle was still traveling eastbound down this road, Ray Road, and that's when it ran into a ditch and struck a tree," said Lt. King. "Quite naturally, they're in hysterics. They're screaming and stuff like that because it's such a traumatic incident that happened, it was just warming to see the other kids helping younger kids get off the buses."
The first person to make it to the scene of the crash, even before police, was a man who lives just down the road from where it happened. Clay Rowe says through the early morning fog, he could see flashing headlights from down Ray Road and knew something wasn't quite right, so he went to investigate. What he found when he got to the source were young children emerging from the wreckage, through the back emergency exit of the bus. Rowe called 911 immediately, then helped the remaining children off the bus and kept them as calm as possible while waiting on first responders. After checking on the driver, Rowe knew it would take a much larger effort to get her out safely.
"The side of the bus there was smashed in, hardly to nothing. I mean, it was smashed down, and they took the jaws of life and cut that out and they got that lady out through that opening in a place that you wouldn't think they could pull her out of," Rowe said.
Rowe gathered the children to the side of the road, out of harm's way.
"Got down there and starting praying with them. I said 'come on, let's pray. And I did. We prayed, and one of them told me her sister was still on the bus," he said.
Her sister was five-year-old Cambria Shuman.
"I checked the child, the baby, the little baby girl, and so I turned around and left and walked back off the bus. I went back to the other kids that were out there."
Rowe said he knew she was gone. He then focused on keeping the young minds occupied while waiting for help to arrive.
"I was trying to distract them with the cars coming down, there was the highway, 196, behind the dirt road that we were on. Lights were coming by, and I told them, 'look, let's count the cars.' I said, 'some count the ones going this way, and some of us will count the ones going that way.' There was no way. Their minds were, their little heads were still trying to go right back to the bus."
Rowe says the tragedy will leave a mark not only on the children but also on the surrounding community.
"I'll tell you, if we're going to do anything, we need to pray for the kids, and they are going to need counseling. They are going to need counseling. I'm going to tell you, if some of them weren't in shock, I'll be surprised because they were acting like it. We are all going to have to pull together, and we all, all of us out here, we all have strong faith in Jesus Christ, and we all go to church, and that will bond us all together," Rowe said. "Anyone, any person who is in this whole surrounding area, they'd grab that family up and love on them, help any way they can with anything that they need. We're a loving and giving community."
Ambulances took 11 children to Liberty Regional Medical Center. Ten were discharged and one was transferred to Memorial Health. Their ages range from 4-11. The hospital started receiving patients around 7:30 a.m. Seven ambulances responded to the crash - three from Liberty Regional, two from Tattnall County, one from Long County, and one from Winn Army Community Hospital. Several sets of parents and children left looking shaken, and understandably, none wanted to speak on camera. One mom leaving with her four and five-year-old daughters said she got to the crash site as fast as she could. The five-year-old was walking but had cuts and blood all over her face. The CEO says aside from treating physical injuries after something like this, they work to talk kids and parents through the trauma.
"Terrible event and you know, these folks here, my staff I mean, they're amazing. They do it every day. That's what they do. Our EMS staff did an amazing job at the scene triaging the event, and so we're fortunate and we're thankful that we have this facility here in town. We're fortunate we've got the staff to take care of these folks locally and our EMS staff, and again, our prayers and thoughts go out to the families," said Michael Hester, CEO, Liberty Regional Medical Center. "This is what these guys do every day, and they're great at it, even from a counseling perspective. Talking to the families, walking them through things and talking to the children, making them feel more comfortable because the trauma of what the children have to go through in an accident like this also impacts them when they get here. We've called some folks in to help as well in terms of the counseling aspect and talking to folks. It's a very traumatic accident. I don't know if any of you have been through a similar accident. I have with my child, and it'll just throw you sideways. I know that from my experience. We want to do everything we can to make these parents feel comfortable here, and I think we've done a great job on that. They focus on what they need to do to take care of those patients and get them healed."
EMS Director Shawn Parker says with something like this, there are really two scenes to manage: the emergency response at the crash site and the emotional and medical treatment at the hospital. He says they don't typically deal with this kind of crash, and says no amount of training can prepare emergency responders for the emotional reaction to seeing something like this.
"I think with anything like this, it's surprise; it's shock. You know, even though we've all been doing this at least a little while. some of us longer than others, we still find surprise I guess in certain instances. Even though we've seen it 50 times, it doesn't change the nature of people and that certain things are surprising and shocking," Parker said.
Some law enforcement officials are dealing with this tragedy directly. Liberty County Sheriff Steve Sikes says he rushed to the crash as soon as his deputies told him the severity of it. It wasn't until he got there that he learned it was Cambria Shuman, whose parents and grandparents he's known for decades. He was the one to break the news to them.
"It hits close to home when it's somebody you've known all your life and somebody you've watched grow up, but tragedy is tragedy regardless of who they are and where they are from," Sheriff Sikes said. "It's just...everybody knows everybody. I had officers who had kids on that bus. They live in that Gum Branch area."
The sheriff also says several deputies live in the area and had children on the bus. He says the close-knit community is reaching out to the Shuman family.
The Liberty County School System released the following statement Tuesday:
Liberty County School officials say they can't remember ever having a crash in which a student got injured, let alone killed. Their immediate focus is helping the students and families.
"We're working with our grief counselors, as I said, to work with those students, teachers, and staff. We will continue to do that," said Dr. Patti Crane, Liberty County Schools.
Dr. Crane says they'll have a bus and a driver that route on Wednesday to make sure students still have a way to get to school.
Stay with us for the latest.