The highway exit ramp where a bus carrying an Ohio college baseball team wrecked has been the site of numerous crashes and can be difficult for drivers to navigate, a federal transportation official said.
Kitty Higgins, who is leading the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the fatal accident that killed six people and left eight still hospitalized, said Saturday that there have been several crashes at the uncommon, left-hand exit from a car pool lane the bus drove off. There were no visible signs telling drivers to slow down for the ramp, which ends at a T-intersection on the overpass, she said.
Higgins also said investigators are trying to determine why the driver took the exit ramp at full speed. The bus slammed against a concrete barrier at the top of the ramp early Friday and plummeted off the overpass onto the interstate below.
There are tire marks at the scene, but it is unclear when the driver realized his mistake and tried to correct it, Higgins said.
The team from Bluffton University was jolted awake when the bus crashed, landing on its side. The wreck spewed gas onto Atlanta’s Interstate 75 and scattered baseball equipment across the roadway.
It was hours before the players, and those at their tight-knit Ohio campus about 55 miles south of Toledo knew the toll: Four teammates dead, plus the driver and his wife. Twenty-nine were injured, and eight remained hospitalized Saturday night. Five were in serious or critical condition, and the rest were in fair or stable condition.
Family members of killed and injured students were to return to Toledo Sunday afternoon on board a charter flight.
The team was on its way to Florida for spring training and had traveled all night from Ohio. The driver had switched out with another driver an hour before the wreck.
Team member Tony Moore said he fell asleep on the bus floor after a late night of watching movies, listening to music and chatting about upcoming games.
The next thing the 21-year-old junior remembers is hitting the rail on the overpass, rolling around and “the final slam in the ground.”
Moore was trapped between bus seats until his teammates pulled him out. For a long moment, they stood looking at each other in the pre-dawn darkness inside the bus that had fallen 30 feet.
The legs of Mike Ramthun and Chris Bauman were pinned beneath the bus. Moore and other teammates tried to calm them, telling them help would be on the way. They got the roof escape hatch open and stumbled out on the freeway.
“We were trying to get everybody loose off,” Moore said. “Everybody was still in shock.”
Timothy Kay, a pitcher, and others tried to lift the bus and pull the pinned players out.
Moore said he looked up and saw some people wearing purple — the school color of the Mennonite-affiliated university — on the overpass. Four passengers, including his brother Jason, a 23-year-old assistant coach, had been thrown from the bus when it crashed through a concrete wall on the overpass.
4 underclassmen among the dead
Killed were two freshman, Scott Harmon and Cody Holp, and two sophomores, Tyler Williams and David Betts. The driver and his wife, Jerome and Jean Niemeyer, also died.
“We are sincerely grateful for the outreaching of family and friends. We find comfort in knowing that our parents were loved by so many,” the Niemeyer’s family said in a statement released Saturday night.
A.J. Ramthun woke up in his window seat to see the ground come up at him as the bus was falling. It was only when his seriously injured coach grabbed his arm afterward that he realized his collarbone was broken.
“We looked, and thought, ’How did we survive that?”’ Ramthun said.