CHATTANOOGA — Chattanooga Police confirmed Wednesday evening that a sixth child in the Talley Road bus crash has died.
The news comes as the city continues to mourn the loss of so many young children and as parents and others ask questions about how the accident happened and what could have been done to prevent it.
Gov. Bill Haslam on Wednesday said he would mobilize state government in response to the Monday crash, promising a review of safety protocol to "make certain that we don't have one more of these."
"It's time for us to step back, all of us — local school boards, the state — and look at the whole school bus process," Haslam said outside Woodmore Elementary School in the working-class Brainerd neighborhood of Chattanooga. He said the "thorough review" would include everything "from how we hire drivers, to how we ensure safety of the equipment, to whether there's seat belts on those buses."
Tennessee's Department of Education and Department of Safety and Homeland Security would participate, Haslam said.
Lawmakers already are drafting legislation to require seat belts on buses, and National Transportation Safety Board investigators are here gathering evidence as they try and piece together exactly what happened during the crash.
Haslam's Chattanooga visit comes as many Hamilton County parents are venting their outrage with a school system that they said did not protect their children. Several family members told media outlets they had complained that the bus driver, Johnthony Walker, was speeding on the job.
Police have said Walker, 24, was speeding when he veered off the winding 30 mph Talley Road on Monday. The bus slammed into a utility pole and wrapped around a tree with such force that it was almost ripped in two. Walker was arrested and charged with five counts of vehicular homicide, along with charges for reckless endangerment and reckless driving. Police said there could be more charges later.
Chattanooga police said Wednesday that a blood sample analyzed by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation found no drugs or alcohol in Walker's system. In addition, police said they have found no evidence that the driver threatened the students, although they acknowledged they are still interviewing witnesses and have not yet talked to students.
The NTSB said Wednesday afternoon that Talley Road, where the crash occurred, was not on the bus's designated route, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Walker, who received his commercial driver license in April, worked for the private Durham School Services company that contracted with Hamilton County schools. Walker already had a school bus crash in September, according to Chattanooga police.
But school officials would not answer repeated questions about family complaints during a brief news conference Wednesday. Instead, Woodmore Principal Brenda Cothran said the school's focus was "on giving our families and students the support that they need."
School officials had previously said Durham School Services was responsible for monitoring Walker's performance and disciplining him when necessary.
In an emotional video posted to YouTube on Wednesday, Durham School Services CEO David A. Duke said he was "not able to elaborate" on the crash, but he promised his company would offer "any support that we can" to victims. He added that his company would cooperate fully with investigators.
"Nothing that I can say can take away the pain and the grief for these families," Duke said. "My responsibility now is to look for answers. Answers about why this tragedy occurred and answers for how we can make sure that this never, ever happens again."
As Thanksgiving approached, Woodmore families were making funeral plans or keeping vigil beside hospital beds.
Three fourth-graders, a first-grader and a kindergartner died in the crash, and many of their classmates suffered serious injuries. More information on the sixth student who died two days after the crash was not immediately available. Five students remained in the hospital Wednesday.
Haslam met with some of those students and their families at Erlanger Health System. He told reporters he had come to Chattanooga to express the state's shared grief.
"You're not supposed to have elementary classrooms with empty desks," Haslam said. "The sorrow that all of us feel is incredibly deep."
Zoie Nash's family was grieving the loss of one child while holding tight to hope that another would recover.
Nine-year-old Zoie was one of the six children killed. Her brother is still battling serious injuries, according to her godmother and close family friend Toya Oliver.
Oliver came to the site of the crash Wednesday, where candles, balloons and smiling teddy bears have formed towering memorials for the victims — even as NTSB investigators worked nearby. She spoke warmly of a little girl who loved running on the beach, dancing and playing many sports.
"It's still kind of unbelievable," Oliver said, flipping through photos of a smiling Zoie on her smartphone. "This right here makes it real."
Oliver said she wanted to see the bus driver prosecuted, but she couldn't find an answer when asked about what anyone could do to ease the pain of five families mourning the loss of innocent lives.
"I don't know," she said after a long pause. "Just keep praying."
Reach Adam Tamburin at 615-726-5986 and on Twitter @tamburintweets.