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Bus crash case headed to grand jury

Wearing a brown shirt with gold lettering that read, “DCHS Stand Together,” Shannon Renee Warren, a freshman at David Crockett High School, took the stand on Nov. 13 to testify against the woman who once drove her to and from school.
Brenda K. Gray, of Jonesborough, faces eight counts of reckless aggravated assault, 31 counts of felony reckless endangerment and several traffic offenses in connection with a Sept. 20 school bus crash on Mount Wesley Road in Telford.
Gray, the driver of that bus, was charged on Oct. 3, at which time she turned herself in to authorities and was booked into the Washington County Detention Center. She has since bonded out of jail and awaited last week’s preliminary hearing at the George P. Jaynes Justice Center flanked by a handful of people.
The crash, a Tennessee Highway Patrol officer testified last week, injured every one of the 39 students on board the bus to differing degrees.
The third and final state witness in the preliminary hearing, Warren testified she was sitting in the fifth row back on the driver’s side of the bus on the afternoon of the crash.
“We were playing a high-five game before it happened,” she said. “Then Miss Gray asked, ‘Do you want to lose your stomachs?’”
In an interview with media outlets after the hearing, Warren said she believed Gray was trying to drive fast enough to get the bus tires to leave the ground and jump over the hill.
It wasn’t the first time Gray had done that, Warren said.
“The first day I rode the bus, we did it,” she said, admitting that some students had encouraged Gray to jump the hill in the past. “It’s fun because we’re going fast and it’s a hill.”
Warren did not, however, hear any students encouraging Gray to drive faster on the day of the crash, she said.
THP Trooper James Fillers testified last week that Gray was driving anywhere between 52-60 mph at the time of the crash. The posted speed limit on Mount Wesley Road is 30 mph.
Warren said she remembers little about the wreck itself.
“I remember when we went around the first curve, (two classmates) went into my seat,” Warren recalled. “Then we went off onto the left side of the road and I don’t remember anything.”
Warren testified it took her 5 to 10 minutes to get off the bus “because people were laying on top of me and they wouldn’t move.”
Rescue helicopters were used to transport Warren and another dozen or so students to area hospitals. Others were taken by ambulance or released to their parents a short time later at the scene.
Warren suffered hairline fractures in her lower back and an ankle.
“Everyone was injured to some degree,” THP Trooper William Shelton testified. “Some was very minor, some was a whole lot more serious.”
As the first witness called to take the stand last week, Shelton said it took him 15-20 minutes to arrive at the scene that day.
“Upon arrival, I found the bus laying on its side off the roadway,” he said. “EMS was there treating the injured, assessing all the passengers at that time.”
Calling the scene “very chaotic,” Shelton said he spoke with Gray a short time after he arrived.
“She stated she was traveling down Mount Wesley Road and was distracted by some children, causing her to drive off the roadway,” Shelton testified, noting that Gray was helping students get off the bus at the time of their conversation. “The bus was up on its side. The children were having to come out the emergency hatches on top of the bus. She was helping in that area.”
Minutes later, Gray reportedly started having chest pains and was transported to an area hospital for treatment.
Gray’s appointed attorney, Phillip Ratliff, seemed to take issue with the fact that despite speaking with all of the children involved or their parents, Shelton neither took written statements nor recorded those statements with some kind of audio equipment.
Ratliff also grilled Fillers, a member of the THP’s Critical Incident Response Team that reconstructed the crash scene, on his math abilities and experience with bus-related crashes.
Ratliff called no witnesses of his own, only choosing to cross examine the three state witnesses.
After hearing from the trio of individuals, Judge Robert Lincoln concluded there was enough probable cause to bind over the case to the grand jury. Gray is scheduled to appear in Criminal Court on Jan. 22, 2013, at 9 a.m.