The driver of a tractor-trailer may have been distracted when he veered into oncoming traffic on Interstate 35 and hit a bus carrying a North Texas community college softball team, killing four players and injuring several others, authorities said Saturday.
The Oklahoma Highway Patrol identified the driver as Russell Staley, 53, of Saginaw. He was treated in a hospital and released.
Capt. George Brown, a spokesman for the Highway Patrol, said no charges were pending Saturday against Staley. A patrol spokeswoman said Staley’s statements to investigators indicated that he was distracted.
“It’s too early in the investigation to say what the cause was with certainty,” Lt. Betsy Randolph said.
The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team of investigators to the site and held a news conference Saturday afternoon.
“As a parent of a daughter in college, I realize — and I think we all realize — that this is truly a parent’s worst nightmare,” said NTSB board member Robert L. Sumwalt. “Our goal, our entire reason for being here, is to prevent things like this from happening again.”
The collision near Davis, Okla., late Friday badly damaged the driver’s side of the North Central Texas College team bus driven by a coach with 15 players aboard as they returned from a scrimmage against Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, Okla.
Besides the deaths, two team members remained in hospitals Saturday, one in critical condition. The other nine players were treated and released, along with the coach.
“This is the most traumatic event that NCTC has had in its 90 years of history,” college President Brent Wallace said at an emotional news conference Saturday in Gainesville, about 60 miles south of the crash site.
The four players killed were identified by the Oklahoma Highway Patrol as Meagan Richardson, 19, Brooke Deckard, 20, Katelynn Woodlee, 18, and Jaiden Pelton, 20. The women were from small North Texas towns near the campus.
Three of the players died at the scene and a fourth died at a hospital in nearby Sulphur, Highway Patrol Capt. Ronnie Hampton said.
Oklahoma University Medical Center clinical coordinator Darina Shellman said Bailey Buchanan, 18, was in critical condition Saturday. Kelly Wells, spokeswoman for Norman Regional Hospital, said Rachel Hitt, 19, was in fair condition.
The tragedy shocked the close-knit Texas community college of about 10,000 students. Rich Raymond, father of freshman player Emily Kuser, who survived, said many of the team members had been playing together on regional softball travel teams since they were 6 or 7.
“It’s just an amazing family of girls and athletes and coaches,” Raymond said. “Just such a tight community. And even if your girl isn’t going to the school, there’s a lot of pain right now.”
The college’s police chief, James Fitch, described the crash scene as “chaos.” He said 11 ambulances and several helicopters responded.
The front end of the bus was virtually untouched, but the sides were heavily damaged. The initial report listed the weather as clear and the highway as dry.
Hampton said the truck kept going and went off the side of the road after it hit the bus.
“It took about an hour before we found the semi,” he said. I-35 reopened early Saturday.
Sumwalt said the NTSB team will collect evidence for later analysis and he identified the trucking company as Quickway Transportation of Nashville. No one responded to a message left with the company.
“We look forward to interviewing both drivers as soon as possible,” Sumwalt said. He said the agency is interested in hearing from eyewitnesses to the accident or to the moments before the accident. They may call toll-free 866-328-6347 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
That inquiry will run parallel to the Highway Patrol’s criminal investigation. “Ours is strictly a safety investigation,” Sumwalt said.
Hampton said the Highway Patrol’s investigation will take several weeks.
“Right now, it’s being investigated like a homicide,” Hampton said, adding that both drivers will undergo standard toxicology tests.
Details of the crash are still unknown, Hampton said, but “something happened to cause [the semitrailer driver] to depart the roadway and impact the other vehicle.”
A posting on the North Central Texas College Facebook page reads: “We ask for your prayers at this time for our softball team.”
The school scheduled a prayer vigil on campus for Sunday evening.
Staff writer Patrick M. Walker contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press.