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Death at the Crossing
About North Georgia

by Randy Golden exclusively for About North Georgia

Tuesday, March 28, 2000 - When Rhonda Cloer approached the rail crossing in Tennga, Georgia, (map) the driver of the Murray County, Georgia, school bus crossed the tracks to turn the 74-passenger vehicle around. Just a few minutes earlier, Cloer had begun her daily trip through the small towns just west of the Cohutta Wilderness. The seven children on-board were headed to Northwest Georgia Elementary School (Map) on a crisp, early Spring morning. Young Brittany Gaddis sat three rows from the front, her lap-belt fastened securely.

Approaching the intersection from the north, the engineer on the CSX freight train from Cincinnati to Tampa blew the whistle at 1,000 feet, and issued a longer warning at 620 feet. A massive 193-ton diesel locomotive powered the 33-car freight train at speeds up to 50 miles-per-hour. At this weight and speed it would take more than 2,500 feet to stop the train. With less than 200 feet between the locomotive and the intersection both the engineer and conductor watched in disbelief as a school bus began to cross the railroad tracks. 162 feet from the intersection the train's emergency brake was applied. Both trainmen knew, however, the only hope was that the bus would miraculously pull out of the way. For eight seconds the men on the locomotive watched, horrified, as the train covered the last 162 feet. The whistle screamed and the brakes squealed all the way.

The deadly impact ripped the body of the bus from its frame, leaving half of the bus in Tennessee and dragging half back into Georgia. Crumpled at one end, the body lay in a ditch by the now stopped train. Dazed, young Brittany Gaddis unbuckled her belt, left the shattered body of the bus and began to walk to the road where the vehicle had been moments earlier. She would be the only person on the bus to walk away.

Handling emergencies is never routine, even at the relatively small Murray County 911 Services office, but no one was prepared for what was about to happen when the first call came in at 6:45 am. Consummate professionals, they began to gather available forces to deal with an emergency that no one expected. Within 4 minutes the fire department is on the scene, and eventually EMS teams from Murray and Whitfield Counties in Georgia and Polk County, Tennessee, contributed to the growing rescue effort. One ambulance rushed 16 miles in 11 minutes to arrive in Tennga.

Once the emergency crews reached the accident they faced a myriad of problems. The location of the body of the bus made access difficult at best. Parents quickly swarmed to the site to see if their children were okay. Bus driver Cloer and the other children were all injured, and rescue crews had to use pneumatic tools to reach some of them in the body of the bus.

Governor Roy Barnes
Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes
Kayla Silver lived in Cisco, Georgia, a small, tight-knit community south of the Tennessee-Georgia border. The kind of town where everybody knows everybody else, and nobody was surprised when her father Darrell quickly rushed to the scene after hearing about the accident. Finding Kayla's limp body, he held her in his arms, alternately praying and crying, until an EMS worker told him his little girl was dead. The EMS worker later told a reporter it was the hardest thing she ever had to do. Another child, Daniel Pack of Tennga, GA also died.

Shortly after the first call came in to the Murray County 911, Erlanger Medical Center (web site) in Chattanooga, Tennessee began preparing for the injured including Ms. Cloer and her daughter Kayli. A major regional medical center, Erlanger's T. C. Thompson Children's Hospital was specially selected to handle the critically injured youngsters. A med-evac unit known as LifeForce assisted in transporting the children.

In spite of the focused care, a third child, Amber Pritchett, died from injuries sustained in the Tuesday morning wreck on Wednesday night, March 29. Just a short while later Georgia Governor Roy Barnes joined hundreds of friends and relatives at a candlelight vigil held near the site of the wreck.


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