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Ropes, phone lights used in rescue after deadly bus plunge

LOXLEY, Ala. — Lulled asleep by the humming of their Texas-bound charter bus following a trip to Disney World, members of a high school band were jarred awake before dawn Tuesday when the rig ran off a highway and plunged into a deep ravine.

One person died, driver Harry Caligone, and about three dozen others were hurt, three seriously, authorities and the bus company said. Interstate 10 didn’t reopen in both directions for about 10 hours after the accident occurred between Mobile, Alabama, and Pensacola, Florida.

The cause of the crash wasn’t immediately known, but survivors from Channelview High School in metro Houston described being asleep one moment and tumbling through the air the next.

Student DeWayne Benson, 15, told KTRK-TV by telephone he awoke to hear the band director repeatedly say “Harry” before the bus hit some bumps followed by one “huge bump.”

“Some students were stuck under seats, some were on top of other students and there’s a lot of panic to get people out,” said Benson, who was taken to a hospital but wasn’t injured.

Students used cellphones as lights to get out and grabbed blankets to help people outside, he said. Temperatures were in the 40s at the time of the wreck, which happened around 5:30 a.m.

First responders used ropes to rappel down the more than 50-foot (15-meter) ravine in the middle of I-10 and then had to cut some of the victims from the wreckage, said Baldwin County Sheriff Huey Hoss Mack.

The Channelview Independent School District said 40 students and six adults from the school were on board. Medical officials said at least 37 people, most of them teenagers, were treated at hospitals or other facilities in Pensacola and southwest Alabama for injuries that ranged from minor to very serious.

The sheriff said it wasn’t immediately clear what caused the bus to enter the grassy median, which abruptly ends at a steep embankment where the interstate passes over Cowpen Creek. First Class Tours Inc., the bus operator, identified Caligone as a longtime driver with the company.

Sister-in-law Angela Caligone, 58, of Houston, said Harry Caligone had been a bus driver for 20-plus years, the last 15 with the company, and had “just passed his physical with flying colors.” She recalled him as “fun-loving, caring, dedicated to his job, dedicated to his kids.”

Channelview High’s graduates include University of Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, who tweeted: “Wow, praying for everyone involved! #PrayforChannelview.”

Josh Torres said his 17-year-old sister, Bianca Torres, was sitting at the rear of the bus when the impact of the wreck tossed her forward several rows. She had pain in her legs and bruising but was otherwise unscathed and taken to a hospital for evaluation, he said.

“All that she remembers is that she felt a bump, then a crash and then the bus flipping onto its side,” Torres said.

Torres said his brother, also a member of the Channelview band, was on a second band bus that wasn’t involved in the accident. That bus stopped briefly and continued on to Channelview, a Houston suburb of about 38,000.

Only hours before the crash, the band’s Facebook page had been updated to show a large group posing outside Disney World, where the band performed at a music festival Saturday.

Norman Haynes of Victoria, Texas, said his daughter, 18-year-old trumpet player Makena Campa, was headed home on the bus with her mother. He spoke with both of them after the crash and was on his way to the hospital.

“My daughter was really groggy because they had her on some very heavy pain medication,” he said. “They sounded kind of shook up. I think I’d be shook up as well.”

The bus charter company pledged to help local authorities investigating the crash in a statement that offered prayers for injured and their families. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration gives First Class Tours a satisfactory rating, meaning records show no evidence of substantial non-compliance with safety requirements.

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records show that in the last two years, the carrier has been involved in four crashes prior to Tuesday’s crash, one involving a fatality. A police report showed a bus in May 2017 failed to yield the right of way in Houston as it turned left and fatally struck a pedestrian in a crosswalk.

Texas Peace Officer’s Crash Reports also offer details of three crashes involving the company’s buses without deaths or injuries. In January, a bus driver was given a warning citation in Houston for turning too wide after the bus and an SUV collided. In August 2017 in Sugar Land, near Houston, a bus was hit from behind in traffic. In March 2016, a man driving an SUV was cited for an unsafe lane change in front of a bus after the two vehicles collided in Houston.

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Reeves reported from Birmingham, Ala., and Anderson from Loxley. Associated Press contributors include Bill Kaczor in Pensacola, Florida; David Warren in Dallas; Michael Graczyk in Channelview, Texas; Rebecca Santana in New Orleans; and Jamie Stengle in Dallas.

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