It was 6 a.m. on the March day of a field trip to the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga.
Fifth-grade teacher Amy King was busy laying out name tags for parent chaperones and packing away lunches. As the kids boarded the three charter buses hired for the day, she made small talk with 75-year-old Gerald Bailey, the driver who would lead the caravan of kids from Bryan Elementary School in Morris, Alabama. King’s colleague, Sherry Ledlow, popped in a DVD of Ever After for the students, and the two settled into front seats for the three-hour ride. About an hour later, the teachers were chatting quietly when, out of nowhere, they felt the bus veer across the highway and slam into the guardrail. The children screamed.
King’s first thought was about the kids: “I turned around and said, ‘Guys, it’s fine. Calm down.'”
Across the aisle, Ledlow did the same. “We were telling them that we were all right,” she recalls. “But in my head, I was thinking, Man, we had a close call.” The bus seemed to have resumed course.
But when the two teachers turned to the driver, they saw him slumped in his seat. “He was being held in by his seat belt,” says King, “but his head was just kind of hanging there.”
Meanwhile, the bus hurtled, unmanned, down the interstate at 70 miles an hour. King’s and Ledlow’s eyes met. Both teachers leaped to the driver’s side and tried to rouse Bailey-until an ominous hum refocused their attention. The bus’s wheels had hit the rumble strip on the left, inches from the guardrail. They were going off the road.
King looked through the windshield: On the left, past the guardrail, was a steep embankment with tall trees. On the right, a low, grassy ditch. In a split second, she made her decision. Leaning over the driver, she put one hand on the wheel. “I had enough sense about me to think, Do it gently. Pull it gently,” she says. “And I pulled the wheel back to the right.”
The bus didn’t react so moderately, however. It fishtailed, skidding across the highway and sending plumes of dust and tar into the air. Ledlow was thrown to the floor. King kept her balance, but the bus was beyond her control-and was now tipped up on two wheels. “It was real scary,” recalls Hunter Graves, 11, who was sitting in the back. He watched from a side window as the bus swerved. “All kinds of crazy stuff was going on,” he says.
In all the chaos, a voice in King’s head told her, You’d better find something to hang on to. She grabbed a pole as tightly as she could.
Just then the bus flipped over into the grassy ravine, hurling children out of their seats and down the aisle and sending King through the windshield. In the back, Hunter Graves hit the bathroom door, hard. “I think I blacked out,” he says. The bus slid through the grass on its roof for several yards before finally coming to rest, and the frantic children began clawing their way out through the broken windows.
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Phillip Chumley was one of the parent chaperones following behind who pulled over and rushed to the scene, where he and others were met by children running from the bus in tears.
Ledlow, pinned against the broken windshield, managed to crawl outside, where she saw a badly injured King. The first thing King asked was whether her students were okay.
Miraculously, none of the children were killed. Not only had King steered the bus toward a safer area, but her gentle right turn had scrubbed off some of the bus’s speed, lessening the impact when it flipped. “She did an outstanding job,” says Lt. Terry Windham, an Alabama highway trooper who was on the scene.
King was airlifted to the hospital, where doctors treated her for a broken hip, fractured ribs and vertebrae, a shattered kneecap, a broken femur, a punctured lung, and a broken clavicle. “I think I’m going to need a substitute teacher,” she deadpanned to her husband when she came out of surgery.
Nineteen of the 44 students on the bus were sent to the hospital. For the most part, their injuries were minor, like Hunter Graves’s broken collarbone, but classmate Brittany Purvis broke her pelvis. After surgery, she was able to enter middle school this fall.
“I was thrilled when I went to orientation and saw her there walking,” says King, her voice breaking a little. “Those kids will always be special to me.”
Just why driver Gerald Bailey passed out remains unknown, and while no one is eager to get on a charter bus soon, Hunter’s father, Steve Graves, says the accident “made the community better and stronger. Everyone really took care of each other.”
King returned to Bryan Elementary this past August to cheers and praise—although she seems embarrassed by all the attention. “I don’t think I’m a hero,” she says, adding a lesson many a teacher has passed on to her students: “I just did the best I could.”