Five Woodmore Elementary children died in a bus crash Monday, with just one school day remaining until Thanksgiving break.
The school bus carrying 35 students overturned and crashed into a tree less than a mile from the school around 3:20 p.m.
The crash happened on two-lane Talley Road in the heart of a residential neighborhood just north of Brainerd Road, turning front lawns into triage stations for injured students rescued from the bus and staging grounds for frantic parents who pleaded for information about their children from emergency personnel.
Some asked to approach the wreckage, but emergency responders on the other side of a web of yellow caution tape kept them away while working to track down information on children for distraught family members.
Students who were not rushed to the hospital walked away from the scene clutching their parents' hands, looking dazed. They had cuts and blood on their faces. Other students laid on stretchers in yards, waiting for additional ambulances.
It took emergency crews several hours to remove trapped children from the bus, and investigators were at the crime scene late into the night. The National Transportation Safety Board has launched a federal probe into the crash, and investigators are expected arrive in Chattanooga this morning.
"What has happened [Monday] is every public safety official's worst nightmare," said Chattanooga police Chief Fred Fletcher. "But that is nothing in comparison to the nightmare that families, friends and our community is going through with this tragic loss to children in our community."
The best way to support the county's students is by allowing kids to attend school today, said Hamilton County Schools Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly, and counselors will be available.
"We will have support for our students, our staff, members of our community," Kelly said. "We will continue to provide this support for as long as it is needed. We will do everything we can to try and help the families involved in this tragedy."
Twenty-three students were transported to T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital at Erlanger for treatment. Parents of Woodmore students were seen running up the street toward the hospital, and families filled the hospital's waiting room praying for good news.
The driver of the bus, whose identity had not been released as of press time, was on his regular route, officials said.
He was questioned Monday and was cooperating with investigators, Fletcher said. A warrant was issued to remove the data recorder on the school bus and to review the video on that school bus, he added.
"Certainly, speed is being investigated very, very strongly as a factor in this crash," Fletcher told reporters.
The speed limit on the road is 30 mph.
Hamilton County Schools contracts its busing services with Durham School Services, one of the nation's largest suppliers of school bus services. In Hamilton County, Durham operated about 240 of the district's 300-350 buses. The others are operated by independent contractors.
Gov. Bill Haslam said the state is going to do everything it can to assist in the wake of the tragedy.
"It's a sad situation any time there's a school bus with children involved, which there is in this case," he said. "We will do everything we can to assist in what I think is going to be a very sad situation."
Once more is known about the cause of the crash, Haslam said, it would be a good time to discuss having seat belts on buses.
California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey and New York all have mandatory school bus seat belt laws, and Texas requires seat belts on school buses purchased after 2010, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, led an unsuccessful effort to require seat belts on Tennessee school buses last year after two students and a teacher's aide died in a bus crash in Knoxville. Many lawmakers opposed the proposal, saying it was too expensive.
In the 2014 crash, the driver was texting and swerved over a concrete median, crashing into another bus, according to an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The crash resulted in a new Tennessee law increasing penalties for bus drivers caught texting and driving.
Just last week, a bus of Chester County high school students crashed in Nashville and more than 20 students were injured.
The bus driver lost control, swerved to the left side of an exit ramp and then over-corrected back to the right and struck a guardrail and overturned, the Tennessean reported.
Fifty-three children were killed across the nation while riding in school buses from 2004-2014, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
Late Monday night teachers from across the district gathered at Woodmore Elementary School painting a colorful mural of encouragement and support.
At the scene of the crash Monday afternoon, a chaplain with a Hamilton County badge asked one mother if he could pray with her.
She said yes.
The two began praying, echoing the prayers of thousands from around the city — and country — as news of the accident spread.