Bus crash chaos: 'We've got people everywhere'
First medic on scene's radio traffic: "I need every available EMS unit in the county here. I need you to launch every helicopter you can launch this way."
By Mark Washburn
The Charlotte Observer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Despite its location in a rural stretch of Tennessee, emergency medical crews reached the site of the fatal bus crash involving Statesville church members in only six minutes.
"We have a tractor-trailer and bus," radioed the first medic to arrive.
Then, after a cursory examination of the scene, he radioed back a minute later:
"I don't know how many people we've got. We've got people everywhere."
Dispatch tapes from Jefferson County's fire and rescue headquarters and the county's EMS agency in Dandridge show that cellphone calls from motorists on Interstate 40 began flooding into the county's 911 center at 2 p.m. Wednesday.
Six minutes later, the first EMS unit, called Medic 7, rolled up on the scene, followed 55 seconds later by a second ambulance.
Ninety seconds after arrival, Medic 7 radioed in his third report: "I need every available EMS unit in the county here. I need you to launch every helicopter you can launch this way."
Dispatchers by then were already sending fire companies from across the county and asking for assistance from neighboring jurisdictions. A firefighter responding to the call radioed in that heavy black smoke was visible at least a mile away.
At 2:10 p.m., a dispatcher told responding units: "We're being advised there are several DOAs."
After the first firefighters arrived, an urgent call went out for a tanker truck to bring more water because the tractor-trailer's fuel tank had been breached and the cab was in flames.
Interstate 40 was clogged with vehicles stopped by the crash. Fire and rescue units were advised to travel the wrong way on the blocked highway's westbound lanes to reach the scene faster.
One rescue truck, trying to get around stopped traffic by driving in the median, became mired in the grass and a tow truck was sent to pull it out.
Bodies thrown from the vehicles by the impact were in the roadway and the median, said Armando Fontes, sheriff of neighboring Cocke County who responded to the emergency.
In all, more than 100 rescuers from 20 agencies in six counties helped at the scene, said Brad Phillips, director of Jefferson County's Emergency Medical Service.
Four survivors were taken by helicopters and others in ambulances to the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville, a Level One trauma unit that serves 21 counties in eastern Tennessee, Kentucky and western North Carolina.
Mass-casualty situations are a specialty of the center, which has 581 beds and serves as the teaching hospital for the university's medical school, said spokeswoman Susan Wyatt.
UT Medical Center handled a similar emergency in September 2012, when another church bus crashed in Sevier County near Knoxville. Two people were killed and 12 injured in that accident.
Wednesday's crash was the deadliest in Tennessee since a December 1990 pile-up on I-75 that killed 12 after dense fog cut visibility to near-zero. In May 1972, 14 people were killed near Morristown, Tenn., when a passenger bus hit a tractor-trailer head-on.
Jefferson County, in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains east of Knoxville, has a population of about 51,000 and an area of 314 square miles, more than 10 percent of which is lakes. Its sheriff's department has a force of about 40.
Dandridge, the county seat and the second-oldest city in Tennesse, is a town of 2,700 about five miles from where the crash occurred.
Early Friday, someone placed a series of seven white crosses at the scene of the crash near mile marker 423. They bore the inscription of John 3:15, "Everyone who believeth in Him shall have everlasting life."
(c)2013 The Charlotte Observer
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