NTSB details Florida crash that killed 7 children

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A truck driver who plowed into a car at a Florida school bus stop killing seven children had been awake for 34 hours, except for a short nap, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board said Friday, Feb. 3. David Rayburn, the lead investigator for the Lake Butler crash, told the Associated Press that the 31-year-old Crete Carrier driver, Alvin Wilkerson, was refusing to talk to investigators about the accident.

Blood tests showed Wilkerson had not been using alcohol or drugs, Rayburn said, and Wilkerson was not using his cell phone at the time of the accident. No charges have been filed against Wilkerson, although a criminal investigation continues. Rayburn told the AP that fatigue was one of many factors being considered as the cause of the crash, but that any determinations were preliminary. “He was driving quite a bit during those 34 hours,” Rayburn said, adding that Wilkerson was making deliveries and loading and unloading his truck.

At the time of the crash, Wilkerson was driving a load of bottled water from High Springs to Jacksonville, a trip of about 85 miles. The NTSB, using an identical school bus and truck, determined the school bus should have been visible for about 3,000 feet — more than half a mile — and there was some light skid marks before hitting the car and pushing it into the school bus. The car burst into flames, killing all seven children, and forcing it under the school bus, with nine children aboard. Two children remained at Shands hospital in Gainesville on Friday, Feb. 3 in serious condition.

Rayburn said both the bus driver, Lillie Mae Perry Godbold, and the truck driver had valid commercial licenses. He noted that the driver of the car, Nikki Mann, was only 15, had only a learners permit and was talking on her cell phone when the truck hit the back of her car. But Sheriff Jerry Whitehead told the AP that the crash was not Nikki Mann’s fault. “Accidents happen,” Whitehead said. “This was a tragedy. I don’t believe Nikki was at fault at all. The truck driver … plowed into them and killed them.”

Rayburn said there were no mechanical problems with any of the vehicles involved, and a recorder on the truck did not show the impact. Investigators don’t know if a dog riding in Wilkerson’s truck played any part in the collision. The NTSB investigation is expected to take about a year, while the Florida Highway Patrol said its criminal probe will take a matter of weeks.

Shortly after NTSB’s announcement of its initial findings Friday, Feb. 3, Lincoln, Neb.-based Crete released a press statement. “First and foremost, our thoughts and prayers remain with the families of those involved in the accident,” said Jack Peetz, the company’s executive vice president and chief operating officer.

“As the National Transportation Safety Board announced, its statements today were preliminary and its investigation will be ongoing,” Peetz said in the statement. “Like the NTSB, our desire is to determine the cause of the accident. The NTSB stated there were no pre-existing defects with the company’s equipment, and the driver was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs, nor was he on a cell phone at the time of the accident.

“The NTSB indicated the driver may have been fatigued. The driver was working a dedicated route designed for the driver to be readily able to comply with applicable regulations regarding hours of work and driving and to be home every night. We are not aware why the driver may have been fatigued and will continue to fully cooperate in the investigation of the accident. Records available to our company both now and at the time the driver was hired in March of 2005 reflect that he holds a valid Florida commercial driver’s license without any motor vehicle citations since 2001 and has not received any citations as a commercial driver.

“This continues to be a difficult time for all involved and for the Lake Butler community,” Peetz concluded. “We again express our deepest sympathies and pray for all of those recovering from the accident.”