Fourteen-year-old Victoria Davis was supposed to be on the Meigs County school bus that crashed Tuesday afternoon. The crash claimed the life of the driver, 53-year-old Lisa Dillard, and a 7-year-old girl.
Seven other children were hospitalized after a utility vehicle — driven by 56-year-old Terry Trammell — slid sideways into the bus' path in the 7700 block of Highway 58. A total of 32 children and one adult — the bus driver — were on board, according to school officials, though the Tennessee Highway Patrol has said there were 24.
Due to remote learning brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Meigs County students have only been attending in-person classes a few days per week, Stephanie Davis, Victoria's mother, said. And Tuesday was not one of Victoria's days to attend. But because she'd been having trouble accessing a remote learning program, her father, Cameron Davis, suggested she go in person to complete the assignment so she wouldn't fall behind.
So Stephanie Davis started getting Victoria ready for school that Tuesday morning. But just as Victoria was putting on her shoes, her mother told her father, "'Cameron, there is no sense in her going for just one class,'" she said. "And he was like, 'Well, whatever. You do what you think is best.'"
The two had a bit of a disagreement over the issue, Stephanie Davis said, but she ultimately decided to let Victoria stay home.
"Then our neighbors ran over here at about three-something and was like, 'Is Victoria on the bus?'" Stephanie Davis said.
That's when she learned what had happened.
"Everybody was just screaming — there was people lying on the floor, glass everywhere," M.J., a seventh grader, recently told Times Free Press news partner WRCB-TV. "I went up there to help the bus driver's daughter, and I couldn't really get to her 'cause she was underneath the seat. But I looked over at the bus driver, and I couldn't look at her no more. It was just gruesome."
Shortly thereafter, Cameron Davis called his wife to let her know he was on his way home.
"I was like, 'Hey. The bus got in a bad wreck.' And he was like, "Oh my God.' I was like, 'I'm not going to lie, I didn't send her,'" Stephanie Davis said. "He realizes I made the right decision, but it still hurts him [to think she could have died]."
Victoria used to sit close to the front of the bus to help with the younger children, her mother said. She'd make sure they had their their backpacks, lunchboxes and any other belongings with them before they got off at their bus stop.
Now, Victoria sort of blames herself for not being there to help, Stephanie Davis said.
She tells her daughter, "You couldn't have done much. Especially if you were sittin' where you normally sit."
Photos released by the Tennessee Highway Patrol show the entire front of the bus was crushed by the impact with the utility vehicle.
Victoria keeps to herself a lot, her mother said, "But I did hear her tell her friend last night that — her friend goes, 'How are you doing? Lisa was your bus driver.' And she goes, 'I do not want to ride the bus again," Stephanie Davis said.
Despite the family living far away from the high school where Victoria attends, Stephanie Davis said she told her husband, "'I'm taking her. I'm not putting her on the bus.' There's no way I can and know that she feels safe. Not that I don't feel like she's safe — as a parent, sometimes you've got to put your feelings aside — but knowing that she don't feel safe, I can't."
Of the seven children who were hospitalized, all were said to be in stable condition and three had already been released by Wednesday evening.
That night, around 200 people gathered at the Meigs County Fairgrounds pavilion to hold a candlelight vigil and worship service in memory of the victims. Several speakers from different churches asked for prayers for the 7-year-old girl — who has not yet been identified — as well as the bus driver, the injured students and the driver of the vehicle that collided with the bus.
"If you call Meigs County your home, you have been affected by this," one speaker said.
The crowd of mourners, many sporting masks to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, hugged each other and wept.
The bus driver, Dillard, was irreplaceable, multiple people have said.
Stephanie Davis used to live in the same neighborhood as Dillard. She remembers her as thoughtful and caring.
"There was one instance where my 14-year-old daughter was getting ready and forgot to brush her hair," she said. "[Dillard] called me and had me bring her a hairbrush and waited for me to bring it just so she can brush her hair."
Dillard always had little treat bags for Valentine's Day or Halloween, Stephanie Davis said.
"All the kids were hers," she said. "She loved all of them like they were hers."
Dillard would often ride around the neighborhood in a golf cart with her own young daughter, who was also injured in the wreck, and check on the children.
"She'd ask how the kids were and sit there and talk to the kids," Stephanie Davis said. "She was a very thoughtful and very caring lady."
At the vigil, speakers called on the community to be forgiving.
"It can really be easy to be angry at this driver," one speaker said of the utility vehicle's driver. "I want us to commit, as a community — we could be the ones that's distracted. We could be the ones that's on our cellphone, glancing over the road, lookin' at the pretty new house — not to get angry because that person is going to go through enough guilt of their own."
The speakers all called for unity — for community members to put their social and political differences aside and come together and pray for healing, for the children to not have nightmares and for the parents to not worry.
"Meigs County strong. We do not take it lightly," another speaker said. "Every single time that some tragedies come against this place, we've all gathered together, and that's not going to stop after today. And I just want us to remember that we are brothers and sisters, that we need to treat each other that way."
Contact Rosana Hughes at 423-757-6327, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.