Failure of a front tire on a Statesville church bus, which led to a crash that killed eight in October, was likely caused by the wheel hitting road debris or some other object within an hour of the wreck, investigators said Monday.
A forensic examination of the remains of the tire by the Tennessee Highway Patrol showed it failed from within, probably after contact with some road hazard – a curb, pothole or debris – within 50 miles of the crash scene.
Authorities said there would have been no way to see damage from the outside of the radial tire, but the belts inside had broken after striking something. Air then seeped into space between the belts and the tread and, as the tire heated up from road friction, the air expanded and blew the tread outward.
There will be no charges filed and the official cause of the crash was ruled accidental. Although the bus was in violation of federal rules requiring it to have a U.S. Department of Transportation number because it carried more than 16 passengers across state lines, the oversight was not a factor in the crash, authorities said.
“It did not affect the bus in any way,” said Trooper John McFarland, one of the investigators.
Trooper Randall Massengill, a Highway Patrol investigator, said the tire separated from the rim after it blew. What remained of the tread and wheel assembly were taken to the Highway Patrol’s laboratory in Nashville for examination.
There, experts found evidence of internal damage to the belts in the tire consistent with hitting a foreign object. There were no gashes on the exterior of the tire, which was in excellent condition before the accident, Massengill said.
Manufactured by the South Korean company Hankook, the tire may have been damaged in the Gatlinburg area where there was a lot of road construction, but there was no way to be certain, investigators said. It was not a retreaded tire, they said, nor was there any manufacturing problem.
Church members on trip
Members of the Front Street Baptist Church Young at Heart Seniors Ministry were returning from the 17th Annual Fall Jubilee in Gatlinburg when the bus careened across the median near mile marker 423 on Interstate 40. The bus hit an SUV and then slammed into a tractor-trailer. Both the driver of the truck and a passenger in the SUV were killed.
Massengill estimated the entire accident, from blowout to the collision with the tractor-trailer, occurred in less than three seconds.
It was impossible to determine the speed of the bus at the time of the crash, Massengill said, but there was no indication from the wreckage or witnesses that it was traveling in excess of the speed limit. None of the drivers involved in the crash had any signs of impairment, according to autopsy results.
‘Dude, watch out’
A statement taken from Timothy Wacker, a passenger in the SUV, was released with the investigation report on Monday. Wacker told investigators that the crash happened so fast he only had time to shout a warning to the driver of the SUV.
“I said, ‘Dude, watch out’ and that was it,” Wacker told investigators. “I was going to try and grab towards the steering wheel, but it was too late.”
Brenda Jolly, a passenger on the bus, told investigators that she heard a loud pop right before the bus veered into the median.
Killed on the bus were the driver and his wife, Randy and Barbara Morrison and church members Cloyce Matheny, Marsha McLelland, Brenda Smith and John Wright. Randy Morrison was licensed to drive a passenger bus and was experienced in operating it.
Killed in the Chevrolet Tahoe SUV was Trent Roberts, 24, of Knoxville, who was thrown from the back seat of the vehicle during the crash despite wearing a seat belt. Also killed was Mose Farmer, 66, of New Orleans, driver of the tractor-trailer, which was carrying a shipment of paper goods.
‘Our hearts still grieve’
In a news conference announcing the results of the investigation, Highway Patrol Col. Tracy Trott said troopers reached the crash in only four minutes because they were nearby overseeing traffic in a construction zone.
Upon arriving at one of the worst accidents in state history, rescuers found a scene of carnage – at least six bodies had been hurled from the wreckage and more than a dozen people were in need of immediate medical attention. “We hope this never happens again in Tennessee,” Trott said.
In a statement Monday, Front Street Baptist Pastor Tim Stutts thanked everyone who responded to the wreck “and made yourselves available to be used powerfully in the midst of a great tragedy.”
He praised the University of Tennessee Medical Center staff “and all those who have assisted with those recovering from the accident.”
“Our hearts still grieve for the Roberts family, the Farmer family and for those who lost loved ones within our own church family,” he said.
It was the deadliest crash in Tennessee since a December 1990 pile-up on Interstate 75 that killed 12 after dense fog cut visibility to near zero. In May 1972, 14 people were killed near Morristown when a passenger bus hit a tractor-trailer head-on.
Staff Writer Joe Marusak and Staff Researcher Maria David contributed.