Chattanooga mourns and heals after school bus tragedy

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Chattanooga is mourning.

Officers blocked side streets, some holding hands to their hearts as the miles-long procession made its way down Main Street.

People came out in front of businesses and homes to look on solemnly, wave or salute the horse-drawn hearse. One Chattanooga police officer stood holding his hat in front of a half-mast American flag.

Once again, this city is healing from a tragic loss of life that has thrust it into the national spotlight.

Cor’Dayja Jones' funeral Saturday marked the first of six for the Woodmore Elementary School children who died on their way home from school when a bus driver, speeding around a corner, flipped the bus into a tree on Monday, authorities said. Several other children were injured and four remain hospitalized in critical condition.

The 24-year-old driver, Johnthony Walker, faces six vehicular homicide charges, and records released Friday showed students and administrators raised concerns about Walker's driving prior to what was Walker's second school bus crash this year.

The wreck was the third high-profile tragedy to strike the city in recent years. In June 2015, a tractor trailer slammed into traffic stopped for construction, killing six people — including two children. A month later on July 16, 2015, five servicemen were killed when a man sprayed bullets into two separate military facilities in the city.

"I feel like our community got stronger after that tragedy, and we came together in a way we never had before," Pastor Kevin Wallace said Saturday. "And I sense that it's happening again this time with the Woodmore accident."

Wallace held a candlelight vigil after last year's shooting, and he also gave Cor’Dayja's eulogy Saturday afternoon to more than 500 people. Cor’Dayja had been a member of the congregation at Redemption Point Church for the past five years, ever since the church began hosting inner-city children after school. She eventually started coming in early to help set up for other kids.

At Saturday's funeral, 9-year-old Cor'Dayja is seen in photos dancing or posing in a neon tutu. Her go-to pose is with hands on hips, the toes of one foot pointed outward. She takes the pose in a lady bug costume and again with cowboy boots on.

"She sang with my two daughters every week and was an angel — a strong, quiet, caring young lady," Wallace said. "She was the embodiment of what we want every child in this community to become."

When he heard about the accident Monday night, Wallace started making calls. Cor’Dayja was unaccounted for.

He rushed to the hospital to see if he could be of any help there.

"I will never forget the scene at the ER of TC Thompson's Children's Hospital Monday night," Wallace said during the eulogy. "I will never forget watching a precious mother cry as she was notified that her baby would not make it home that day."

Like for Cor’Dayja on Saturday, there's been an outpouring of support for the families of the other five children who died: 6-year-old D'Myunn Brown; 6-year-old Zyaira Mateen; 8-year-old Keontae Wilson; 9-year-old Zoie Nash; and 10-year-old Zyanna Janal Harris. Zyanna's funeral is Sunday, and Zoie's is set for Thursday.

Already, more than $112,000 has been donated to The Woodmore Fund to benefit the families of all six victims.

Chattanooga Police Deputy Chief David Roddy responded to the scene as officers, paramedics and firefighters continued to work through the crushed steel and shattered glass to pull children from the wreckage.

He stood in dress blues Saturday on the outer edge of the group that surrounded Cor'Dayja's casket in Forest Hills Cemetery.

"It's therapeutic for everyone — to see this much of the community come to support (the family), not only with faces that they know, but organizations that they recognize, whether it be first responders, the school, the hospital or local businesses," Roddy said.

That support is not exclusive to funerals. Roddy said officers, first responders and other members of the community have been visiting the children who remain in critical condition every day, bringing Thanksgiving dinner to families spending the holiday in the hospital.

"One of the strengths of this city is how we come together during a crisis," Roddy said. "And we have the history to show that."

Neighbors near the crash site have allowed mourners to create a memorial where people continue to trickle in, adding to hundreds of balloons, stuffed animals, flowers, candles and photos. And when the city first heard about the crash, Chattanoogans rushed to blood donation centers, forming lines that went into the streets.

Audrey Jones, a family member at the funeral, said healing takes patience and the ability to listen.

"At a time like this, words are hard," Jones said. "I think if we as a community just continue to show unity, (we) will be able to heal."

Wallace said that although people may cry for Cor'Dayja, they shouldn't worry about whether or not she made it home.

"Somewhere in the middle of that tragedy, God got on bus 366," he said. "And on her way home in the midst of that crash, I believe God looked down and said, 'Cor'Dayja Jones, we're closer to my house than we are to your house, so why don't you come on home with me.' "

USA TODAY


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