By JILL BLEED, Associated Press
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A third-grader was killed and at least 45 people were injured when a charter bus carrying youth football players from Tennessee rolled off an interstate and overturned before sunrise Monday in central Arkansas, authorities said.
Arkansas State Police said the bus crashed along Interstate 30 near Benton, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) southwest of Little Rock. Police said most of the injured were children and that they were taken to hospitals in Little Rock and Benton.
The elementary-school age players from Orange Mound Youth Association in southeast Memphis were returning home after playing in a tournament in the Dallas area over the weekend, according to Memphis TV station WMC. Orange Mound is a historically black neighborhood that unites around its highly competitive youth football program.
Damous Hailey, who was one of about half a dozen adults on the bus, said it was carrying players from 10 Orange Mound Youth Association football teams who played in all-star squads in a tournament in Texas.
He told The Commercial Appeal newspaper that he was sitting directly behind the driver when the bus swerved then flipped "about 15 or 20 times," before stopping at the foot of a hill.
"When the bus started flipping, the kids were hollering, and we were trying to calm them down," he said in an interview from Saline Memorial Hospital, where he was taken to be treated for injuries to his right side and leg. "I was holding on, trying to make sure I didn't get thrown out."
Sports teams and coaches affiliated with the organization have not returned phone calls and emails from The Associated Press.
At a news conference in Memphis Monday afternoon, Nickalous Manning, area superintendent of Aspire Public Schools, said a third-grader from an Aspire charter school who was "full of life, full of energy," died in the crash. He did not reveal the child's name.
"When we talked to teammates here, you saw on their faces about what that young person meant to them, the impact that he had on the school community," Manning said. "This is going to be a loss that's going to be hard to heal from."
Students from five Achievement School District facilities in Memphis were also on the bus, according to district spokesman Bobby White.
Authorities haven't talked about what caused the crash that happened under the cloak of darkness. Images from the scene showed the heavily damaged bus on its side on an embankment near some dense woodland, just at the crook of a sharp bend in the road. The bus was hoisted upright and pulled from the scene late Monday morning.
Police said the bus driver was being questioned by troopers.
It is unclear if seat belts were provided for the bus passengers. Lawmakers in Tennessee tried but failed to introduce regulations in 2017 requiring seat belts in new school buses. The bus in Monday's crash was a charter bus.
Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock said it received 24 patients following the morning crash. The hospital said all the patients were in stable condition, though no additional information about the injuries has been released. The hospital said it has set up a family center so parents can reunite with their children. No information about the status of injured passengers being treated at hospitals elsewhere has been released.
Orange Mound was created after the Civil War by and for African-Americans, and black-owned businesses flourished there until desegregation enabled residents to live elsewhere. Chronic disinvestment brought widespread crime and poverty.
One resident, Carlos Morgan, told The Associated Press that the youth football program is vital in a neighborhood where youths can so easily be lured into drugs and crime.
"It helps keep kids out of trouble, opens up opportunities to go pro and things like that," said Morgan, who also played on traveling football squads in his youth.
It "gives kids opportunity and brings the community together," he said.
Associated Press reporters Adrian Sainz in Memphis, Tennessee, and Rebecca Reynolds Yonker in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed to this report.