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Updated 3:10 p.m. with bus driver identification and additional Highway Patrol information

The Missouri Highway Patrol has released additional information about Thursday's fatal school bus crash that claimed the life of two teens.

According to the highway patrol:

Michael Crabtree, 43, was driving a 2007 Volvo conventional tractor without a trailer east on Interstate 44 in the right lane of the two-lane road. Crabtree, of Kearneysville, W. Va., stopped after spotting a traffic back-up from a construction zone about a mile ahead.

A second vehicle, a 2007 GMC Sierra pickup truck, was traveling eastbound behind the tractor, but the driver, Daniel Schatz, 19, of Sullivan, failed to notice Crabtree's stopped vehicle. Schatz's pickup struck the rear of the tractor and came to a stop.

Katherine Schackelford, 75, of St. James was driving a 2003 Blue Bird school bus from the St. James School District behind Schatz. The bus collided with Schatz's vehicle, pushing it on top of Crabtree's Volvo tractor. 

Kelly Mcennis-Mullenix, 38, of St. James was driving a 2001 Blue Bird school bus, also from the St. James School District, and struck the rear of the first school bus. The impact pushed the first bus up and on top of the two other vehicles.

Twenty-five female students and chaperones were aboard the first bus. Thirty male students and chaperones were aboard the second bus.

After the crash, the driver of the Volvo tractor, the two bus drivers, and 54 students were transported to local hospitals for treatment of injuries that ranged from minor to moderate.

Schatz was pronounced dead at the scene at 1:15 p.m. and a female student, Jessica Brinker, 15, of St. James, was pronounced dead at the scene at 1:38 p.m. by Franklin County Medical Examiner's Office personnel.

The two school buses were owned and operated by Copeland Bus Services LLC of St. James and leased to the St. James School District.

Updated at 8:45 a.m. to include National Transportation Safety Board comments.

GRAY SUMMIT • They worked through the summer, washing cars and selling candy, to pay for their annual summer trip to Six Flags St. Louis. And on Thursday morning, triumphant members of the Red Regiment Band boarded two school buses for the nearly 70-mile trip from their high school in St. James, Mo.

They almost made it.

Just over a dozen miles from their destination, the buses - one loaded with boys, the other with girls - were ensnared in a crash on Interstate 44 that claimed the life of one of their own and the driver of another vehicle.

"They've spent the last two weeks in the hot sun doing their drills getting prepared for this year's program," said Steve Lorts, whose son Taylor suffered minor injuries. "They were going up there to celebrate the end of band camp, to relax and enjoy."

Exactly what happened around 10:15 a.m. remained unclear. Investigators - to include the National Transportation Safety Board - say it could take a couple of weeks to figure it out.

The crash, about 40 miles southwest of St. Louis, drew national news coverage to the drama of one bus sitting atop a large truck tractor, with a mutilated pickup sandwiched between them and a second bus embedded in the back of the first.

Killed in the impact were Jessica Brinker, 15, a member of the John F. Hodge High School band, who sat in the last row of the first bus, and pickup driver Daniel Schatz, 19, who was a reserve quarterback last year at the University of Missouri-Columbia. His father, Dave Schatz, is a Republican candidate for the state House seat in Franklin County's 111th District.

Investigators said 60 people were aboard the buses, with dozens sent to hospitals by ambulance, helicopter or charter bus, for treatment of injuries or precautionary examinations.

The pileup was along a stretch of I-44, near Gray Summit, where road construction has been under way since March. Initial reports suggest that the road work, as well as a stalled car, may have contributed.

Investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board headed to the site this morning to spend about a week looking into the crash. Board vice-chairman Christoper Hart said the crew of 15 was here "because there are issues of long-standing interest to the NTSB," including school-bus safety, highway work-zone safety and the potential for crash-sensing devices on school buses and other commercial vehicles that would warn drivers or even automatically apply the brakes.

Hart declined to speculate on the cause of the crash and said the board won't publish its final report for at least 14 months. He said it will issue advistories sooner if warranted.

"We are here to determine a cause, not to determine liability," said Hart, a former Federal Aviation Administration official. He spoke during a brief press conference in Chesterfield this morning before heading to the scene.

Hart asked any witnesses who had not talked with officers on Thursday to call their local police agencies, which will get them in touch with federal investigators.

The president of Climate Express, which owns the truck tractor, said Thursday that his driver was slowing because of construction-related congestion when he was struck from behind by the pickup. The tractor was not towing a trailer.

The pickup was hit by the first bus, said Tim Laske, president of the trucking company, based in Washington, Mo. Then the second bus rammed the first.

The driver of the first bus -which carried the girls from the band - told investigators she had moved to the left to avoid a vehicle stopped on the right side of the road. She checked her mirrors and was unable to stop in time after realizing the pickup had struck the truck tractor ahead of her, said Missouri Highway Patrol Cpl. Jeff Wilson.

The scene was one of confusion and chaos, as first responders dealt with a wide range of injuries, a large number of victims and gridlocked eastbound traffic.

Erin Hall, of nearby Villa Ridge, said she heard a loud boom shortly after 10 a.m. but didn't think anything of it because of the construction activity. And then she heard screams.

Hall raced to the scene to find dozens of students on the south side of the highway, some lying on the grass and some wandering around, seeking and giving comfort.

"They all looked stunned or shocked," Hall said. "I heard a lot of crying and a lot of yelling."

Kolby Griffith, a student riding on the second bus, said those who weren't seriously hurt moved quickly to "evacuate, get away from the scene."

"We all just played our role," he said. "I was trying to get everyone away from the bus because I could smell gas."

Jim McClelland, of the Meramec Ambulance District, said he was the first emergency worker on the scene. When he arrived, students were working together to get off the buses.

"I was surprised the children on the bus were very calm," he said.

Rescuers set up a triage area to the south, treating the injured and packaging them for transport. A dozen of the students were not hurt.

Those with the more serious injuries were taken to St. John's Mercy Medical Center in Creve Coeur. One of them was then sent by helicopter to St. Louis Children's Hospital, and one was released. The injuries to the remaining four, ages 13-16, were characterized as in the class of abrasions and fractures.

The patient moved to Children's Hospital, identified as a girl, 16, was reported to be in stable condition.

Four other students were taken to St. Clare Health Center in Fenton, where they were treated for minor injuries and released.

The biggest group - three dozen - was sent to Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center in St. Louis. Those youngsters all walked off a bus and into the hospital for evaluation. Officials said only one of them was hospitalized, and that most of the injuries were scrapes, bruises and small cuts.

After the crash, eastbound traffic on I-44 was rerouted for six hours at U.S. Highway 50 to an outer road.

Drivers in the area have been dealing with construction-related congestion for several months. The Missouri Department of Transportation and its contractor, Fred Weber Inc., have closed one lane of I-44 in each direction during off-peak hours to add a third lane, resurface the road and improve drainage.

The work has choked traffic to a single lane in each direction between the Highway 100 exit in Washington and the town of Pacific. Speed limits have been reduced to 50 mph.

Before Thursday, there had been nine fatal accidents since January 2006 on the 14-mile stretch of highway between Highway 50 near Union and Six Flags in Eureka, according to the Highway Patrol database.

 

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Christine Byers, Cynthia Billhartz Gregorian, Blythe Bernhard, Denise Hollinshed, Todd Frankel, Ken Leiser, Jesse Bogan, J.B. Forbes, Amy Verkamp McArthy and Laura Black of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

 

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