The first responders: Paramedics, police officers recall scene of crashView 12 Photos
Note: A spokesman for the Chattanooga Fire Department said the department's firefighters couldn't comment for this story due to pending litigation related to the crash.
STACIE LILES: PARAMEDIC
As one of the first paramedics on scene, Stacie Liles' primary objective was to quickly and effectively communicate the situation in order to get adequate personnel and equipment to the site.
"My job was to kind of get an estimate of how many patients we're going to have. How many critical, how many are walking wounded, how many are dead. That's what I relayed over the radio," she said. "I think at the time of the call I was guessing maybe 28 [patients]."polls here 4159
After a few minutes, she was joined by her fellow paramedics and firefighters who would use extrication equipment to pull survivors out of the wreckage. Liles focused on the victims she could reach who were trapped inside.
"Whenever I walked around to the other side of the bus and saw the damage, that's when I realized how significant this was," she said. "I had fire department personnel going in the front part of the bus and I was going in the back part so that we could meet sort of in the middle."
She stayed burrowed in the back of the bus for hours, working to stabilize and care for the victims.
"There's really not a minute to stop and breathe. You go into training mode and you go into patient care mode. This is the reason we've been trained. I didn't realize the significance or how long I had been in the bus until I was out."
It was only when she went home that night, hours later, that she was able to begin processing what she had seen and the lasting impact it had on her.
"These are children. We have kids that are that age. I have an elementary school child," she said. "Once you see it you can't unsee it."
DOUG EVANS: PARAMEDIC
Listening to initial reports over his ambulance's radio, Doug Evans knew he wasn't going to a typical crash scene.
"From even a couple hundred yards away we could tell how bad it was. We didn't really stop and think about anything, I just ran up there," he said. "As far as EMS personnel, there were four of us and there were 37 patients. It's overwhelming when you've got more patients than yourself."
He worked through the steady stream of victims one at a time, checking and categorizing them by their injuries.
"If they're walking, you check airway, breathing, circulation, move on. Airway, breathing, circulation, move on. If they're critical, do what you can, move on," he said.
"There was just a lot of them. And they just kept coming and kept coming and kept coming. They had bumps, bruises, scrapes, maybe a fracture. And then the first critical one came out and he needed the hospital," Evans said. "I saw that he needed more than I could provide in a few minutes."
They loaded up the boy and sped to a local hospital where they alerted staff about the magnitude of the incident. Then they headed back. By the time they returned to the scene, there were a half-dozen more ambulances waiting in line, but he and his partner were rushed back to the wreck scene.
"There wasn't going to be a shell-shock factor of what's going on up on the hill because a lot of the crews hadn't been up there. My partner and I had already seen it and we had already been around it. There wasn't going to be that pause factor," he said.
At the end, Evans' was the last medical crew to transport a victim. They dropped off the final victim, loaded their gear back up and went back to work for the rest of the shift. He said they ran six or seven more calls that night, but Woodmore will forever be in a different category for him.
"That's the worst call I've ever been on. Kids always make it different, no matter what," he said.
LT. TONY SYLVESTER: PARAMEDIC
With dozens of victims and a flood of emergency personnel on a narrow residential road, the Woodmore crash was an organizational nightmare Lt. Tony Sylvester had to help solve.
"About everything that could compound this problem basically did — the access was terrible, the road was awful. But the guys did great. It went very smoothly," he said.
When he stepped on the scene he saw the victims his paramedics were already working with both inside and outside the bus, and directed his attention to a nearby group of victims and residents.
"I looked to my left and there were an innumerable number of people up on the hill at the house across the street and they were kind of just walking around," he said.
"I grabbed one of the city officers and said, 'I don't care if you wrap crime scene tape around them or what, I need you to confine that bunch up there until we have a chance to check them all,'" he said. "People have a tendency to wander off. It's a big deal, it's a big situation — you'll lose people."
Turning to the children who were still trapped inside the bus, he checked with the paramedic who was working with the fire department to extricate them.
"We let fire know, 'OK, you can take a little extra time to do this a certain way.' Or we look at them and go, 'Whatever you've got to do, we're at that point to where we can't do much more for them where we're at. We've got to get out now, so instead of trying to cut this bolt and do this really carefully, just cut it off and let's go.'"
He said emergency personnel got in and did their jobs well, rendering aid to every victim effectively, and it wasn't until all was said and done that responders showed the effects from the call.
"At the end, when you see everyone gearing down or putting the equipment up, then you start seeing the faces," he said.
"A guy may quit putting equipment up or he may stop cleaning the truck and he's just kind of standing there drinking a water. Then you kind of see it on the faces. They're kind of like, 'this is a big deal.'"
LT. AUSTIN GARRETT: CHATTANOOGA POLICE
Firefighters, police and emergency medical personnel were already on the scene when Austin Garrett, then-acting lieutenant over the traffic division, arrived to help organize resources.
"Every crash is different. I've been here going on 25 years and I've worked a lot of crashes. A lot of big crashes," he said. "But when you pull on the scene of a crash like that and you see a school bus before you even get close, you know it's going to be different."
"There was a lot going through my head. I'm a father with a couple of kids, so your own kids go through your mind," he said. "There's a big emotional attachment separate from what you're doing and you have to balance that with accomplishing your job and getting things taken care of on the scene."
Garrett's team helped with the initial response, but their responsibilities kept them at the scene long after many of the other responders had left. They began reconstructing the crash, just as investigators would any other crime scene.
"After we've done what we can do at the scene rendering aid, then it shifts totally to investigation," he said. "It was very time consuming. We were on the scene out there until 10 a.m. the next day and even returned out there and then the investigation is still open because it's pending in court. It's just a very long process."
He said the team worked well and he's been glad to see such an emphasis put on peer-to-peer support in the department afterward to help those investigators grapple with the memories.
"My guys worked that case and it's tough. It's tough, but they did it. And they'd do it again, but they'll carry that with them from now on," he said.
"Having that support there to walk you through the time after something like this happens is very important. You can't unsee something, so you have to have a way to deal with it."
"We're as human as anybody else."
SGT. JAMIE BARROW: CHATTANOOGA POLICE
Sgt. Jamie Barrow was the first emergency responder to get to the bus — a wreck unlike anything she'd encountered in her time as an officer.
"I've done this job 17 years. I've seen a lot of death. I've seen a lot of injuries. The best way I can describe it is like a scene out of a horror movie," she said. "I just went in through the front windshield and started climbing over seats."
"You could hear screaming and hollering and just mass hysteria," she said. "It's the most helpless thing for officers. We're not all trained in medic. We don't carry a lot of medical supplies with us.
She said she didn't have time to mourn or be consumed by what she was seeing or hearing, and when others responders arrived, she focused on the children outside, grouping them according to the injuries they had sustained.
"We were trying to get basically a hasty command post scene set up because parents were already starting to show up and we didn't need parents taking away their kids," she said. "There was a lot of wanting mommies and daddies. Some of them didn't even look injured. A couple of them had gashes. A couple of them had broken bones."
Some superior officers tried to get Barrow to leave, but she wound up escorting the last ambulance out because, as she said, "none of us were leaving until that last child was off that bus."
A week later, she responded to another crash involving a bus and felt sick the entire drive over. Thankfully the crash was a minor one with no injuries, but she's still reminded of the Woodmore crash constantly.
"No first responder in their career ever wants to deal with something like this," she said. "Whenever I see a bus, those images pop back into my head."
LT. HEATHER WILLIAMS: CHATTANOOGA POLICE
In the aftermath of the crash, it was all hands on deck to tend to those who were injured, but hours later, Lt. Heather Williams and other crime scene investigators were left sifting through the evidence.
"It was a very large scene. We had the roadway plus the bus and debris. It was going to take a very very long time and a lot of manpower. It took us probably 15 hours to document the scene," she said. "It took a good week and a half just to process everything."
With clothing, personal items and other evidence strewn throughout the bus and scattered around the scene, Williams picked up everything, piece by piece, until it all had been documented accurately.
"It was really long hours, lack of sleep and a lot of making sure you got every detail covered. You want to make sure you do everything right. You want everything done to the best of your ability, and your training and your experience kicks in," she said.
"When court comes around, you want justice. You want to make sure the families were taken care of. You want to make sure you do everything right for them."
A year later, there are still certain things she comes into contact with on the job or in her daily life that can trigger an emotion or memory connected to what she saw after the crash.
"There are certain visions and smells and things that you hear on scenes and you may not think about it at the time, but later on down the road you see or hear or smell something and it triggers an emotion," she said.
Looking back, she can't remember a scene like the Woodmore crash.
"Nothing ever prepares you for that. You can go through all the training there is, but it never prepares you for what you feel when it actually happens."
SGT. VICTOR MILLER: CHATTANOOGA POLICE
Responders treated dozens of children hurt in the crash, but six families received the worst news of all from Sgt. Victor Miller, who was tasked with telling them their children had died.
"I was listening to the radio on the way to the scene and we just couldn't get there quick enough. It was sounding worse and worse," he said.
"I was assisting with putting up crime scene tape and trying to keep people out of the crime scene and we were trying to expand the crime scene to make sure that responders had room to do what they needed to do. That was hard initially, because we had to ask parents who wanted to know if their children were on the bus to move back."
Eventually, Miller was asked to go to the hospital and begin coordinating there. He had experience giving death notifications to families after homicides in the city, but the responsibility of doing that after the crash was daunting.
"Normally, we don't do so many notifications back to back, so that was extremely difficult to have multiple notifications in one day," he said. "Anytime it deals with children it's extremely difficult for law enforcement to do a death notification because we think about our friends and family and the children in our lives."
It was late that night before Miller told the final family that their child had died. His memories from that tragedy, beginning to end, have had a lasting impact on him.
"I have responded to multiple people being shot at the same scene, but this was a totally different experience. When you have the bus in the background and you have the parents that are screaming and wanting their children and you're not able to make that connection immediately, it's very difficult," he said.
"The Woodmore bus crash is on a very different level."
CAROLINE HUFFAKER: CHATTANOOGA POLICE
The tragedy of the Woodmore crash didn't end for the victims and their families when they made it home, and Caroline Huffaker, victim services coordinator for the police department, helped them during the healing process.
"A lot of what we did with the kids and with their families is what we call in my field 'holding space' — meeting them where they're at and meeting some of their most immediate needs," Huffaker said.
She joined then-police Chief Fred Fletcher in responding to the scene and was initially tasked with corralling a group of panicked children asking for their parents.
"We had all these children that were huddled and cold and we tried to push them as far as we could up the driveway to get them out of sight of the bus," she said.
"If you've ever been in a critical incident yourself, you know that look of shock. It's that wide eyed, glassy eyed, having difficulty speaking, trembling," she said. "Those kids were experiencing all the things we would expect to see."
Eventually, instead of immediately connecting parents with their children, she had to start directing them to the hospital where all of the children were being taken for examination. Once those families were either reconnected with their children or notified of their deaths, she stepped in to let them know they had her support in the healing process.
"Some of them still have pretty critical, lifelong impacts," she said.
Some of the families have moved to areas that don't bring up memories of the crash, while Huffaker still works with others who feel trapped by what they suffered.
"We say, 'You don't have to get over what happened, but we certainly want to help you feel like it's not that day every present day," she said.
"It's a year later and these families are still stuck and everyone else has moved on. While the rest of the community is in 2017, for some of our families it still feels like Nov. 21, 2016."
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.