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Feds Investigate Bus-Train Crash

March 29, 2000

TENNGA, Ga. (AP) _ The flag in front of Northwest Elementary School flew at half-staff today in memory of the two students killed when a train smashed into their bus.

``Today could be a tougher day ... because the kids know about it,″ said Dean Donehoo, a teacher and school board attorney in north Georgia’s Murray County.

Six-year-old Kayla Silvers and Daniel Pack, 9, died instantly Tuesday when a CSX freight train broadsided their school bus at 50 mph near the Georgia-Tennessee line.

The driver and five other children were injured. Three children remained in critical condition today, including the driver’s 5-year-old daughter.

``I don’t know how to feel. It’s just so sad,″ said Becky Dilbeck as she dropped off her child at the school today.

At the crash site this morning, eight yellow ribbons _ one for each victim _ were tied to two railroad crossing signs.

Officials from the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Railroad Administration and CSX were at the scene to investigate the crash.

An engineer apparently was blowing the train’s horn, but federal investigators don’t know if bus driver Rhonda Cloer heard it before the train slammed into the bus. Cloer was in fair condition.

By many accounts, Cloer is a competent and conscientious school bus driver.

``Every time that lady has come through there, that bus has stopped at that road,″ resident Edward Watson said. ``If you have children on the bus, even if the train had blowed its horn, she may not have even heard it.″

A ``black box″ aboard the 33-car train and a student-monitoring video camera on the bus may provide clues to the early morning accident, said Kenneth Suydam, lead investigator for the NTSB.

``We have initial, preliminary information from the event recorder on the engine which indicates that the horn was sounding and the bells were continuously sounding as the train approached the crossing,″ Suydam said.

Traveling under the allowed speed of 60 mph through this 600-member community on the Tennessee-Georgia line, the train hit the bus broadside, spun it around and ripped the body off the chassis.

``It is unknown at this time in the investigation if this school bus came to a stop,″ Suydam said.

In Tennessee and Georgia, school buses are required to stop at all rail crossings. The bus had gone into Tennessee to turn around and was about to go back into Georgia.

Kate Pannell, personnel director for Murray County schools, said she knew of no previous accidents on Cloer’s record.

Cloer, 34, who has worked as a county school bus driver for three years, had picked up seven students early in her route to the school near Chatsworth.

Dana Keeton, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Highway Patrol said it was ``way too early″ to decide about criminal charges in the accident.

The fatalities were the first aboard a Georgia public school bus in 15 years.

The crossing, which is maintained by Tennessee, appears to meet all legal requirements, said Luanne Grandinetti, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Transportation. She said some sort of warning system would be installed.

___

On the Net: Federal Railroad Administration: http://www.fra.dot.gov/o/safety/index.htm

Tennessee Department of Transportation: http://www.tdot.state.tn.us

Georgia Department of Transportation: http://www.dot.state.ga.us

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