Russell Staley stared out his broken windshield as darkness engulfed him and firefighters bearing chain saws cut through fallen trees to reach the passenger door of his tractor trailer.
Staley had been heading north on Interstate 35 near Davis, Okla., on the night of Sept. 26 when the road curved slightly to the right. His rig did not. Instead, it rumbled across a grassy median at 72 miles per hour and sideswiped a southbound bus carrying 15 softball players from North Central Texas College and their coach.
The bus flipped, its left side sheared off. In an instant, four young women lay dead or dying amid twisted metal, shattered glass and lime green softballs. Staley’s rig continued 300 feet, plunging down an embankment and snapping trees before stopping. Rescuers at first couldn’t locate Staley’s rig, covered in brush and fallen trees. When they found it, Paul Ozbirn, a local fireman who owns a towing business, climbed in the passenger door. Staley seemed shocked and dazed, Ozbirn said.
“I said, ‘Well what happened?,’” said Ozbirn, 61. “And he said, ‘I run off the road, and that’s all I remember.’ His very words. I said, ‘You don’t remember anything?’ And he shook his head no.”
In the cab, police later found a silver pipe with the odor of marijuana and Staley’s bag containing several prescription drugs, according to an inventory of a sealed search warrant reviewed by Bloomberg News. Some of the drugs can cause drowsiness. Police await the results of toxicology tests.
“He was just kind of in a zombie state,” said Ozbirn. “If I was in that truck for 45 minutes, I’d be wanting to know why somebody wasn’t getting me out of there.”
Truck safety has drawn renewed attention since June 7, when a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. driver went at least 24 hours without sleep before his tractor-trailer hit a van carrying comedian Tracy Morgan on the New Jersey Turnpike, according to police. Morgan was critically injured and comedian James McNair was killed. Regulators and the industry are working to find solutions to reduce the death toll of almost 4,000 every year, including mandatory electronic recorders to enforce duty-time limits and stiffer metal bars beneath heavy-duty trailer trucks to prevent cars from sliding underneath in accidents.
The Oklahoma crash claimed the lives of Jaiden Pelton, 19; Brooke Deckard, 20; Meagan Richardson, 19; and Katelynn Woodlee, 18. Two students who were hospitalized in critical condition have been released. The other students and the coach, Van Hedrick, sustained lesser injuries.
The team was returning home from a scrimmage that Friday night at Southern Nazarene University in Oklahoma. Questions that have no good answers will haunt friends and family for years.
“People are walking around wanting to know why,” said Kevin Darwin, a principal at Dodd City Independent School District who coached Woodlee in high school. “I can go back to my faith. Still I want to know, ‘How did it happen? Why did it happen?’”
Hundreds of people attended each of the four funerals, and softball teams from around the country have raised money for the families.
“It gives you a certain sense of the students feeling like they have to question their own mortality,” said NCTC President G. Brent Wallace, 38. “You think you’re young and these things don’t occur.”
‘I’m a Parent’
Staley said in a brief interview on Oct. 8 that he is struggling with the accident.
“I’m a parent, I understand, you know,” said Staley, 53, who lives in Saginaw, Texas, near Fort Worth. “I’m just trying to get through this like everybody else. This has been horrible.”
Staley and his employer, Quickway Transportation Inc. of Nashville, Tenn., face at least three lawsuits over the crash. Staley attorney Fob Jones of Sulphur, Oklahoma, didn’t return a call seeking comment.
Quickway, an employee-owned company, had no comment beyond a website statement by Chief Executive Officer William Prevost that said the firm was praying for the injured and the families of those killed, and is cooperating with authorities.
Staley told police he was distracted before the crash, said Captain Ronnie Hampton of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. Police are probing that account. They want to know if Staley may have been asleep or unconscious, or if his truck had mechanical problems, Hampton said.
“We by no means are saying this collision was caused by distraction,” Hampton said. “That is his version of the event.”
In Washington, the National Transportation Safety Board is analyzing everything about the accident, including the drivers, their vehicles, and the roadway. The board’s seven investigative teams include engineers, physicians, and trucking experts who will examine medical records, data recorders, and company documents.
“Our goal is to find out not only what happened, but why it happened, so that it can be prevented from happening again,” NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt told reporters. The investigation will likely take several months, he said.
The board is particularly interested in the kind of median crossover accident that occurred in Oklahoma and barriers that might prevent such collisions, Sumwalt said. In 2010, 11 people died in Munfordville, Kentucky, when a trucker on his cell phone crossed a median and struck a van, according to the NTSB. The board is also examining an April 10 accident in Orland, California, where a FedEx truck crossed a median, sideswiped a car and slammed into a tour bus, killing 10, including several students.
Both drivers were killed, and FedEx and the tour bus company are defending lawsuits. Fedex is cooperating with authorities and remains “focused on providing support to those affected,” said Bonnie Kourvelas, a spokeswoman for the Memphis, Tennessee-based carrier.
Distracted and fatigued truckers, who face pressures to work long hours, are only part of the problem in truck accidents. Other motorists and bad weather also contribute to crashes. The American Trucking Associations points to a 2007 federal study blaming truck drivers for 44 percent of crashes that involve large trucks, with passenger vehicles causing a majority of them.
The U.S. Transportation Department enforces rules to limit driving hours and require rest periods. It’s expected to propose the mandatory electronic recorders and seek higher minimum insurance levels for trucking firms. A plan is in the works for stronger guard rails beneath heavy-duty trailer trucks. Next year, regulators may also propose equipment to limit the top speed of a big rig.
All of the efforts to improve safety weren’t enough to save the four young women recruited by their determined softball coach. For coach Van Hedrick, a 48-year-old married father with three young daughters, softball has been at the center of his life for 15 years. In 1999, he stepped down as an assistant baseball coach at NCTC’s Gainesville campus, 70 miles north of Dallas, to begin the college’s Lady Lions softball program. The school, one of 50 community college districts in Texas, serves 10,200 students on five campuses.
“The girls love playing for him,” said NCTC spokesman Darin Allred. “He started out as an old-school baseball coach. He’s kind of had to adapt. Women’s softball is a different ball game.”
Success came quickly for Hedrick. He won a conference championship in his third year. His teams appeared twice in National Junior College Athletic Association national tournaments, including this year, finishing the season with a record of 45-18. His career record of 670-321 is among the best records for a junior college coach in the U.S.
Many of the team’s players were recruited by Hedrick and his assistant coach, Taylor Christian, from north Texas towns too small for football teams, and where softball players are local heroes. Katelynn Woodlee, a freshman shortstop, came from Dodd City, with 369 residents and a single flashing light on Main Street. City Hall is a corrugated metal trailer with an awning. Cattle-dotted pastures and fields of wheat, milo, soybeans and hay fan out in all directions.
Woodlee was an honors student in high school and was studying kinesiology at NCTC. Known for her contagious smile, she excelled at volleyball and basketball, yet softball was her passion.
For Woodlee, a softball scholarship was the ticket to college, said Darwin, the principal of her town’s school that has 380 students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. In the small towns that dot this remote region of north Texas, softball and college often go hand-in-hand. Before he was a principal, Darwin was an NCTC athletic director at the college Woodlee would later attend. While at NCTC, Darwin was the one who recruited Hedrick to the college.
“Sometimes, the kids don’t think a two-year college is good enough competition,” Darwin said. “They all had a dream of four years, and that was Katelynn’s dream, too. I told her if she had a good two years, she could move on.”
Workouts started in August and continued through a series of fall scrimmages in preparation for the spring season.
On the morning of the crash, Hedrick set out in a white Champion bus emblazoned with the school’s name in blue letters. He and his team headed north on Interstate 35 to Southern Nazarene, a private, four-year Christian college near Oklahoma City.
They arrived about noon and warmed up for more than 90 minutes. At 2 p.m., they began the first of two seven-inning games. The scoreboard wasn’t on, and the coaches substituted freely. Hedrick and Southern Nazarene’s coach, Tere Webber, wanted to assess their squads, said Webber.
“Even though he had a lot of young kids, they were very solid,” said Webber, 58. “You can tell they’re well coached.”
After the second game, the two squads gathered around the pitcher’s mound to pray. The Lady Lions left about 5:30 p.m., stopping at some point for dinner.
Woodlee called her father from the bus, said Darwin.
“She was really happy,” Darwin said. “She’d played well.”
Early in the trip, Brooke Deckard sat on the left side of the bus. She graduated with honors from Blue Ridge High School, where she played volleyball, basketball, tennis and softball. She studied business at NCTC and looked forward to moving on to a four-year school.
“She was very charismatic, very bubbly,” said Matt Hartschuh, a high school classmate. “If she liked you, she would do anything in the world to help you.”
While no one on the bus granted an interview, players recorded intimate moments that would radiate out through social media, making people far and wide feel connected to them.
A 10-second video shot on the bus ride before the accident shows Deckard in shorts, her right leg on a seat in front of her, laughing.
“I wanted to show y’all Brookies personality,” teammate Kenedi Jackson wrote on her Facebook page, where she posted the video. The page had more than 145,000 views and comments like this: “Such a tragic accident. The story has even reached all the way up here in Sioux Falls, SD. So sorry for y’all’s loss.”
In the bus was Meagan Richardson, a pitcher from Wylie, 20 miles from Dallas. She had a 4.0 grade point average, had worked as a nanny, and was getting a degree in special education, according to her obituary and a local news account. She preferred to wear t-shirts and Nike shorts and shoes, and enjoyed painting, according to the invitation to her memorial posted on Facebook.
Jackson, Richardson’s roommate, called her Bev.
“Our room is so empty without you and your sass,” Jackson wrote on Facebook after the crash.
Richardson was Kylie Pietila’s impromptu bridesmaid when she eloped, Pietila said. Richardson could be fierce, and a bit intimidating at first, she said. She spent the night before the wedding plucking the eyebrows of Pietila’s father and brother.
“When they flinched, she’d yell at them, ‘You will not be ugly,’” Pietila said. “She was definitely someone who would tell you exactly what she was thinking. She told the truth. She’d also be the first person to stand next to you when you needed a friend.”
Jaiden Pelton, a catcher from Telephone, Texas, wanted to be a nurse. She was an honors student at Sam Rayburn High School, where classes ran from kindergarten through 12th grade. She was kind to the small children in her school, said her pastor, Craig Vance of Lamasco Baptist Church.
“They’d come up to her and say, ‘Good job,’ and try to give her a high five,” Vance said. “She would lean down to get it and talk to them.”
Pelton was going to marry her boyfriend, Klayton Keeton. He posted on Facebook: “The Lord took the best thing that has ever happened to me when He took you.”
The team rolled down I-35, one of America’s major north- south trucking routes, starting from the Mexican border at Laredo, Texas. It passes through San Antonio, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Kansas City, and Des Moines. It ends in Duluth, Minnesota.
Hundreds of tractor trailers barrel along the nearly 240 mile stretch that cuts through Oklahoma at any given moment of the day or night. Too many of those trips end in crashes, said Hampton, the Highway Patrol captain. Between 2008 and this year, semis were involved in 2,056 collisions, injuring 813 and killing 29, including 10 in 2012, Hampton said.
Staley, who got his Texas commercial driver’s license in 1985, was pulling a refrigerated trailer for Hiland Dairy Foods to that company’s plant east of Oklahoma City. Inside the trailer were dozens of empty silver racks on wheels, standing about 6-feet high.
A spokeswoman for Hiland, Kathy Broniecki, said she had no comment and referred calls to Quickway.
Staley was licensed to pull tankers, as well as double or triple trailers, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. He had no violations over the past three-year period tracked by the state.
In 2006 and 2007, he also held several Texas insurance licenses to sell policies for general, casualty, life and health insurance. He was affiliated with three companies. He failed to renew his licenses in 2009 and 2010, according to state records.
Because the Highway Patrol is still investigating the crash, police won’t elaborate on a possible cause.
Staley was 47 miles north of the Oklahoma-Texas line when his 2013 Peterbilt tractor drifted from the left lane at 9:05 p.m. It entered the 92-foot-wide median at a 2-degree angle that widened to 9 degrees, traveling 1,100 feet as the truck traversed the grass and crossed into oncoming traffic, the NTSB said.
Hedrick, the coach, tried to steer to the right before impact. The truck first hit behind the driver’s door, making its fullest impact behind the center of the bus before moving on, according to Hampton. The bus rotated counterclockwise, and its rear wheel dipped off the roadway. It flipped on its right side, with the top facing south. All of the windows shattered.
In the chaos, some girls made their way out through an emergency hatch in the roof. Passing motorists, including another semi driver, stopped to help before emergency workers arrived from miles around.
Ozbirn, the fireman and tow truck operator, said when he arrived, some of the girls were walking around by themselves.
“I said, ‘We got to get these girls together and put them someplace where they stay together,’” Ozbirn said. “If they don’t, they’re going to wander off.”
Stopped to Help
One passing motorist, Aaron Witten, stopped to help, climbing into the bus to assist the injured girls, including two who later died, according to his Facebook post three days after the crash.
“The 2 young ladies’ faces will forever be burned in my memory,” Witten wrote. “It still tears me apart. I see their faces at night. I know I did everything I could. However, I still wish I could have done more.”
His post provoked many expressions of thanks from the team, including from Kenedi Jackson, who wrote: “You’re amazing for helping us.” Another player, Emily Kuser, wrote: “You will never know how much we are grateful for your helping us and everything you did that night. Thank you so much!”
Bailey Buchanan, a sophomore pitcher from Crandall, Texas, had been asleep. She woke in the dark with a broken pelvis. Hedrick pulled her out before emergency workers arrived, said Webber, the Southern Nazarene coach. Her team visited Buchanan in the hospital.
“She said he would be a part of her life forever because he helped to save her life,” Webber said.
At least one girl drove back from the game with her parents rather than ride the bus, said Davis fireman Michael Summers. He was at a high school football game when he got word of the crash.
Summers kept track of the players on the team and the hospitals where they were sent. Two went by helicopter.
Three girls died at the scene, and one was pronounced dead at a hospital. One was trapped under the bus. The survivors witnessed teammates lying dead under sheets. Hedrick was sobbing, head in his hands, at one point, Summers said. People reassured him he had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“He saved a lot of them that night,” said Darwin, the high school principal, of Hedrick. “When people trust you to take care of their kids, it hurts. He went out and recruited every one of those kids who died. He courted them. He’s been in their parents’ homes.”
Christian, the assistant coach, was driving in a school car and was caught in traffic behind the crash. She parked nearly three miles north at a turnout and ran past the traffic to the crash.
Some parents of teammates also arrived at the scene, where dozens of police cruisers, ambulances, and fire trucks assembled. As quickly as the help arrived, word of the crash spread.
“This was the largest media response to any scene I’ve worked in 23 years,” said Brad Lancaster, 42, director of Murray County EMS. “Through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and whatever social media you want to pay attention to, it was instantaneously almost national news.”
As Ozbirn sat with Staley, blood dripped from a cut above the trucker’s left eye, soaking his shirt and pants. Ozbirn said he bandaged Staley’s eye, cut off his bloody shirt and pants, and loaded him on a backboard that firefighters carried to an ambulance.
Messages of Support
The Oklahoma Highway Patrol said they are interviewing everyone on the bus, analyzing toxicology results and assessing Staley’s movements before the crash through cell phone records.
In the days after the crash, hundreds attended the funerals across north Texas. Softball teams from around the U.S. sent gifts or messages of support. People donated thousands of dollars to a school scholarship in honor of the four girls and to another fund for their families.
One woman from Brooklyn, New York, sent a handwritten note and sent it to the team with a $5 bill to “help build a memorial.”
“This makes me cry,” teammate Kenedi Jackson posted on Facebook.
A large group, numbering in the hundreds, attended a fundraiser at CiCi’s Pizza in Gainesville to support the funds. Christian, the assistant coach, spoke to KXII News 12.
“Speaking on my behalf and Van Hedrick’s behalf, we would just like to thank the community for their overwhelming support,” she said. “That helps us get through the difficult time that we’re in.”
Woodlee’s service was held in the Dodd City gymnasium. Her coffin sat under her school’s victory banners. Darwin said he had never seen a larger crowd in the gym.
The town of Telephone said goodbye to Jaiden Pelton at the softball field where she played in high school. Her white coffin sat behind home plate. About 1,000 mourners sat in the infield. A Texas lightning storm bearing hail rumbled in the distance.
“As a pastor who knows where Jaiden is, I must confess I hurt,” said Vance, who helped lead the service.
At the softball field on campus that day, four bouquets lay atop home plate beside four green softballs signed by teammates and other friends. The infield was perfectly manicured, and a stiff breeze blew a school flag at half-mast behind center field. After an intense thunderstorm, blue skies returned.
(With assistance from Jeff Plungis in Washington.)
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