Cook: The Hallelujahs of Woodmore Strong

Terrance Hayes, Takayla Robinson and Ha-Rhiya Bennett, from left, place balloons at a memorial on Talley Road on Tuesday, a day after the school bus crash that took the lives of six Woodmore Elementary students. Ha-Rhiya also attends Woodmore.
photo People gather at New Monumental Baptist Church on Tuesday for a memorial service to honor the children.
photo David Cook

View other columns by David Cook

Some evenings, after getting home from his shift at the foundry, William Clark will sit on his porch in the cool air and smoke a cigarette or two. In the growing dusk, he'll look out across his quiet Brainerd neighborhood as neighbors rake leaves or kids ride bikes down streets with names like Peachbloom Drive and Sunset Avenue.

It's pleasant and quiet, except for one thing: the fast traffic on nearby Talley Road.

"Cars come around here with tires hollering," he said. "I always said there'd be an accident here one day."

Monday afternoon, the accident happened. Clark was still at work, but several houses away, Greg Robinson, 60, heard the noise.

"Kaboom," he said.

When he got there, Robinson saw first responders everywhere and wondered to himself, "Why are they pulling so many back braces out of the ambulances?"

Then he saw the school bus.

"My God," he said.

Sixteen months after the shootings of July 16 came Nov. 21. School bus No. 366 came too fast up a hill on Talley Road, just past Clark's porch, then jerked from right to left, spilling over onto its side, shearing first into a telephone pole then a walnut tree - ripping the roots out, one witness said - in the front yard of a modest red home.

Thirty-one children were treated at hospitals.

Six children died.

"It's been known to be a fast road," Robinson said as we stood in the crash yard.

At our feet, shards of tempered glass mixed in the dirt among walnuts in their shells. People knelt to place balloons, flowers and stuffed animals nearby. Wads of yellow police tape were balled up in a neighbor's trash can. News crews from Knoxville filmed from adjacent yards.

Talley Road is a Sunday- drive kind of road, not even 20 feet wide. Near the crash scene a digital speed limit sign, powered by solar panels, was supposed to flash warnings to oncoming cars. It was not working.

A mile away, the flag at Woodmore Elementary remained at half staff. Inside, adults and students sorted through boxes of bottled water and food; more and more kept coming in.

As news of the crash spread Monday and first responders continued to rush to the wounded, our city's regular citizens became the second responders. Lines formed outside Blood Assurance. Food drives. Donations. Prayers and prayers. Dozens of pizzas were delivered, anonymously, for nurses and doctors at Children's Hospital at Erlanger. Still in his suit and tie, Erlanger CEO Kevin Spiegel helped rush stretchers from ambulances into the ER.

NoogaStrong became WoodmoreStrong, never more evident than on Tuesday evening, when, a mile or so from the crash site, New Monumental Baptist opened its doors for a 6 p.m. vigil.

By 5:45, many of the pews were full.

By 6:15, standing room only.

By 7, a hundred people were pressed against one another in the annex, a hundred more pouring up the side and center aisles. Like the old Gospel story, I half-expected folks to climb onto the roof, pull off the shingles, and lower themselves into the sanctuary, so drawn to the spiritual power inside that room.

Reports said 600 were there; it felt like 6,000. There were politicians. Cops. Children. So many everyday people, black and white. U.S. Sen. Bob Corker prayed near working-class families. Mothers rocked babies on their knees while mayors gave speeches. Someone passed out hand warmers. Someone else passed out funeral fans. There was cause for both: the cold, the hot, the grief, the praise.

"If you need to cry, cry," pastor Roderick Ware said. "If you need to holler, you holler."

I will never forget this: Within minutes, folks were on their feet, hands in the air, praising God. Barely 24 hours earlier, children had died. Yet among such raw and open grief, there was praise. Among such sorrow, gratitude.

"Hallelujah," the choir sang.

"Hallelujah," the crowd sang back.

That night, WoodmoreStrong was made real. The folks inside New Monumental were living out the very old spiritual truth: On the far side of violence, there is victory.

"There is no more pain, no more suffering," Ware said.

"Hallelujah," the standing crowd sang.

Outside, the evening grew dark. I thought about William Clark, smoking his cigarette in the night air, watching over things.

We should all be so watchful.

Could this crash have been prevented? How many times did neighbors complain about the bus driver's speed? Who failed to listen? Would seat belts have saved lives? If so, what legislators failed to fund them, simply because of expense?

Why did it take tragedy for me to visit Woodmore? Why not sooner?

Is my own faith as strong as WoodmoreStrong?

"Hallelujah," the choir and crowd sang.

And kept singing.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.