All six people who died in a fiery crash Tuesday morning in a bus chartered for the Tuscarawas Valley High School band were connected to the school, with three students and three adults perishing in the blaze on I-70 20 miles east of Columbus.
The charter bus had 54 band members, parents and teachers on board from the Tuscarawas Valley Local Schools, according to the Tuscarawas Ohio State Highway Patrol office.
“This is our worst nightmare when we have a bus full of children involved in a crash. It’s certainly the worst nightmare that families can endure or a school can endure,” Gov. Mike DeWine said at a Tuesday news conference at about 12:30 p.m. held at a gas station near the crash site. “Our hearts go out, our prayers to all the families, all those who were on the bus, everyone who was involved in the accident.”
Governor DeWine has ordered that the flags of the United States of America and the State of Ohio be flown at half-staff upon select public buildings from sunrise on Nov. 15 until sunset on Nov. 18. he shared the statement via a Tweet on X, formerly Twitter:
In honor of the lives of those killed in the Tuscarawas Valley Local School District bus crash, I have ordered the flags of the United States of America and the State of Ohio to be flown at half-staff upon all public buildings and grounds throughout Tuscarawas and Stark counties,…
— Governor Mike DeWine (@GovMikeDeWine) November 15, 2023
The fatal crash happened at about 8:52 a.m. Tuesday and involved a total of five vehicles, one of which was the charter bus, according to Lt. Nate Dennis with OSHP. From that bus, 18 people were transported to seven area hospitals. Dennis said at a later news conference that 15 of those taken off the bus were children.
A semi-truck rear-ended the charter bus, an emergency official told the Associated Press.
The crash site will remain an active scene “for quite some time” while the OSHP crash reconstruction team investigates what happened.
“We have to break down what exactly caused the crash in regard to which vehicle struck which vehicle and what the sequence was within that crash at the time of the incident,” said Dennis.
The National Transportation Safety Board says it will be part of that investigation. NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy and a team of investigators are expected to arrive this evening.
The bus was from Pioneer Trails of Millersburg, Ohio. The company says it is cooperating with authorities.
The company’s website says the family-owned business has operated for 39 years.
According to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records, today’s crash is the second involving one of Pioneer Trails’ 30 buses in the last two years. The agency said four people were injured in a crash involving one of the company’s buses on Interstate 69 north of Fort Wayne, Indiana in March 2022. Those records do not indicate if the bus driver was found at fault for that crash. The U.S. Department of Transportation gives Pioneer Trails a “satisfactory” safety rating.
Video from the scene showed “Mid State Systems” on the trailer of the semi that hit the bus. A woman who answered the phone at Mid State Systems said she had no comment right now and hung up the phone. Mid State Systems is located in Hebron, just east of the crash site.
According to the Ohio State Highway Patrol, three of the passengers were pronounced dead at the scene. They are 18-year-old John W. Mosely of Mineral City, 18-year-old Jeffery D. Worrell of Bolivar, and 15-year-old Katelyn N. Owens of Mineral City.
One of the cars involved in the crash was following the bus and was occupied by one teacher and two chaperones. All three adults were pronounced dead at the scene. They are 56-year-old Dave Kennat of Navarre, 39-year-old Kristy Gaynor of Zoar, and 45-year-old Shannon Wigfield of Bolivar.
Superintendent: ‘It will take strength and love to get through these coming challenging days’
The high school group was heading to an Ohio School Board Association conference in Columbus, according to a Facebook post from the school district. The superintendent said the next few days will be “challenging.”
The post states:
“We understand from law enforcement that there may be multiple serious injuries and we are working to learn the details. We will share news with you as we are able, including our plans for upcoming school days and events.
“Right now, our focus is on getting in touch with our Tusky Valley families who had loved ones on the bus and providing support to our entire school community. Our Trojan family is strong, and it will take that strength and love to get throughout these coming challenging days.”
A crisis response team was sent to the school.
Landon Gordon, a recent graduate, said, “We literally came down the road to see if anyone needed any help or anything.”
He wasn’t the only one.
Teachers from other schools streamed to the high school, some arm in arm, others in tears.
The school emptied hours before the final bell.
Kayla Kandel picked up her sister early. “I came to get her to take her home. I couldn’t focus in class just sitting there — terrible, so hard to concentrate knowing there are people out there hurt.” She has friends on the bus. Like the rest of us, she’s waiting to hear if they’re OK.
Parents came as well, and the state highway patrol sent a chaplain.
“We’re here, there’s support, there’s resources, and whatever is needed, we will provide,” said Lt. Laura Taylor, Post Commander with the New Philadelphia Patrol.
“I’d say we’re pretty strong. We stick together pretty well. I know that whatever happens, we’ll be there for each other,” said Superintendent Derek Varansky.
A family reunification center has been set up at Etna United Methodist Church.
A tight-knit community
Jimmy McLoud of the First Christian Church told us how everyone in the “Tusky Valley” community is coming together today.
“People are very close,” he said. “It’s a hard-working community. People who grow up in this community stay in this community. You’re talking generations of friends, which makes these things hard.”
Jon Elsasser, a Zoar resident, said he’s devastated.
“It’s tragic. There’s a lot of information we don’t have. We’re hearing snippets, and we don’t know what’s true and what’s not. It’s really devastating for the community.”
Mayor Scott Gordon has lived in Zoar his whole life. He said it doesn’t feel real.
“It’s shocking. It’s hard when it hits home. And a lot of people are you know really devastated,” Gordon said.
Some of the folks our journalists met today were, understandably, too emotional to speak. We gave them their space.
The community gathered for a vigil after the crash.
News 5 reporter Tessa DiTirro was at the vigil as hundreds of members from the community rolled in to support one another.
The Tusky Valley Stadium was packed. Students, families, and community members filled the entire “home” section and spilled onto the away bleachers and along the fence.
A candle was lit for each of the six victims as cries could be heard through the crowd.
“We lost three students in the accident, students who were bright lights, full of life, and who lost their lives way too young,” said Superintendent Dr. Derek Varansky.
The Bolivar Fire Department raised an American flag and lowered it to half-staff. Balloons, flowers, and crosses memorialize the well-known and well-loved victims.
“We lost someone in our congregation that is dear to this community, students that are dear to this community. It’s going to be a long haul,” said Aaron Rae, Pastor at Bolivar Community Church.
The Tuscarawas Valley Local Schools are in session on Wednesday, but the district understands if students and staff don’t feel comfortable returning.
Counselors will be on campus all day Wednesday, “it’s not just the student body, of course. The suffering for them is immense, but it’s the entire area here. To see the turnout of the entire community here, you can tell this tragedy has really touched a lot of lives,” said Harry Lowers, Springvale Health Center.
The Tusky Valley Band locked arms and marched down the stadium field amid cries from the band members. It was the ultimate show of solidarity and strength.
“We’re definitely in the valley of the shadow of death, but what’s interesting about that is for there to be a shadow, there has to be some light, and I’m excited this community gets to be the light to each other,” said Rae.
In remembrance of one of the deceased students, 18-year-old John W. Mosley, a cross was placed under his senior band photo at Tusky Valley Stadium.
A horrific scene
Viewer photos sent to WSYX in Columbus show the back of the bus on fire and the semi-truck behind that bus.
Dozens of emergency personnel were dispatched to Interstate 70 near the State Route 310 interchange at about 8:45 a.m. Tuesday, the Columbus Dispatch reports. Multiple medical helicopters were also sent to the scene.
Multiple people were taken to Grant, Mount Carmel East and Nationwide hospitals, WSYX reports.
“We are preparing for any patients we receive,” a spokesperson at Grant told WSYX. “We will be ready.”
A witness told a WSYX reporter at the scene that, “my 10-year-old granddaughter is very upset. They said they saw a firefighter go into the burning bus just before it exploded.”
Where they were headed
The remainder of the Ohio School Board Association Capital Conference, which was on its last day, has been canceled, according to the organization’s communications director.
The full statement from the OSBA reads:
“Today, a charter bus carrying Tuscarawas Valley Local Schools students and chaperones on the way to the annual OSBA conference was involved in a very serious accident including multiple serious injuries according to law enforcement.
“Given this devastating news, we have canceled our conference. Right now, our focus is on providing support to Tuscarawas Valley. That includes making grief counselors from our trade show available. We are praying for the entire Tuscarawas Valley family.”
Reaction in Columbus
State lawmakers are mourning the deadly bus crash.
“The reverberations from the accident will just, you can’t even calculate just what that will do to our community,” said state Rep. Brett Hillyer, who represents Tuscarawas Valley.
Lawmakers have been looking into safety for regular school buses, but Senate Education Chair Andrew Brenner said that this crash could cause reform for all vehicles carrying children.
“We have to take a look at this and make sure that we’re doing everything we can to protect the students,” Brenner said.
The team of State Sen. Al Landis, who also represents Tuscarawas County, says he has been with the injured students at a church in the area. Both he and Hillyer vow to fight for support for their community.
Here’s more from reporter Morgan Trau:
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
This article was originally published on News5Cleveland.com and is published in the Ohio Capital Journal under a content-sharing agreement. Unlike other OCJ articles, it is not available for free republication by other news outlets as it is owned by WEWS in Cleveland.
Follow WEWS statehouse reporter Morgan Trau on Twitter and Facebook.
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