Sep 29, 2014 7:28 PM
Cause of Oklahoma truck-bus crash still unknown
The Associated Press
ARDMORE, Okla. (AP) The softball coach who was driving a team bus smashed into by an errant truck did everything he could to save four players who died in the accident, a relative said Monday, even as investigators tried to solve the mystery of why the truck suddenly veered into oncoming traffic.
The driver of the trailer, 53-year-old Russell Staley of Saginaw, Texas, was headed north on Interstate 35 in Oklahoma Friday night when his 18-wheel tractor-trailer veered into a median and into the southbound lanes. It crashed into a bus carrying 15 softball players from North Central Texas College.
The four players killed were identified as Meagan Richardson, 19; Brooke Deckard, 20; Katelynn Woodlee, 18, and Jaiden Pelton, 20. Two other members of the team remain hospitalized: Bailey Buchanan, 18, was listed in good condition; and 19-year-old Rachel Hitt remained in fair condition.
Their coach, Van Hedrick, was driving the bus. Hedrick was visiting the two girls still in the hospital on Monday, said his mother-in-law, Charlene Ruzika. She described Hedrick as suffering from "deep emotional turmoil" as the bus driver during the crash.
"He did all he could to help those girls survive," she said in a phone interview.
Staley declined to comment Monday when The Associated Press reached him by telephone. Oklahoma Highway Patrol Capt. Ronnie Hampton said Staley had told investigators that something in the cab of the truck distracted him, but emphasized that Staley's statement would not be taken at face value on its own.
"The driver's statement is one piece in that puzzle of 100 pieces," Hampton said. "We will compare his statement with the other 99 pieces of evidence."
Hampton said Staley was driving alone on his way from North Texas to Oklahoma. He didn't have any freight aboard the tractor-trailer.
Staley drove an estimated 950 feet through the median and off the highway before wrecking the trailer in the middle of several trees, National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said Monday.
"It's pretty obvious that there was no swerving, no evasive steering maneuvers," Sumwalt told reporters. "The track through the grass, through the median, is very straight."
Federal investigators said Sunday that the truck continued straight after the crash for another 300 feet. Among the things they are investigating are whether passengers on the team bus were wearing seatbelts. Sumwalt said some of the seatbelts had not been worn, but that investigators didn't know yet whether the four girls killed were wearing them.
Federal law does not require passengers on school buses or commercial buses to wear seat belts.
Grieving students at North Central's campus created a memorial of flowers, teddy bears and neon-yellow softballs inscribed with the names of the four who died.
"You can walk in there and it's just like a ghost town," said Lyndi Starr, a sophomore at the college. "Everybody's quiet. Nobody's saying much of anything. Most people are still in shock that it happened."
Harry Crabtree, vice president of safety for the trucking company involved, Quickway Carriers, declined to discuss Staley's employment or the circumstances of the crash, citing the ongoing state and federal investigations.
"Our hearts are broken over this," he said, adding that the company is cooperating with authorities.
Juozapavicius reported from Tulsa, Oklahoma.