LOXLEY, Alabama – A chartered tour bus carrying band students from Channelview High School crashed early Tuesday morning, killing the driver and injuring dozens on the bus.
The bus was heading back to Channelview around 5:30 a.m. Tuesday from a band competition at Disney World when authorities said it entered a median of the highway and plunged 50 feet into a ravine off Interstate 10. Baldwin County Sheriff Huey Hoss Mack said it’s not immediately clear what caused the crash.
The driver was identified as 65-year-old Harry Caligone, a 15-year driver with First Class Tours, the company that provided the bus.
Those injured were transported to various hospitals, including Sacred Heart Health System in Pensacola, Baptist Hospital. As of Tuesday afternoon, 15 of the victims were discharged from Sacred Heart, two remain in serious condition and three are in good condition.
The Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office has set up a call center for concerned family at 251-972-6807. A family response center is set up at the City Hope Church in Malbis, Alabama.
The bus was one of two carrying students and chaperones home from the trip. Channelview ISD Superintendent Greg Ollis said there were 40 students and six staff members on board the bus that crashed. Ollis said that bus wasn’t carrying as many passengers because it was hauling instruments. Ollis left for Alabama Tuesday and said the district is working to get all students home safely.
The other bus arrived at Channelview High School around 1:30 p.m. Tuesday and was met by a group of students outside the school.
In Alabama, troopers are still trying to piece together what exactly happened that caused the bus to plummet into the ravine.
“Yes, in my words, the good lord was looking out for them," Alabama Highway Patrol Capt. John Malone said.
He says it was by the grace of God that it didn't end so much worse.
“For that drop, that weight, I would have thought there would’ve been more serious injuries," Malone said.
Troopers aren’t done yet with their investigation, but they say it is a possibility Caligone was not responsive in the seconds before the tour bus he was driving veered off the road and hit a guardrail.
“There's no indication of any reduction in speed or effort to slow or stop," Malone said.
That impact sent the bus and the 46 people on board into the air, then down 50 feet into the ravine below.
“It would take a medical staff to determine the actual cause of death and if there were any medical issues," Malone said.
It took more than three hours to pull everyone out of the bus, including the school’s band director.
“He was the last one to be extricated. About 3.5 hours in, and that is due to his entrapment," Baldwin County Sheriff Huey "Hoss" Mack said.
Parents drove hours to pick up their kids.
“Everybody in the city and the church, they were very nice, and we’re very thankful that they took care of our students," Erica Martinez said while picking up her sister.
Josh Torres said his 17-year-old sister, Bianca, was on the bus that crashed and 14-year-old brother was on the other bus headed home.
Torres, a former Channelview High School student, said his family originally couldn’t get a hold of Bianca and those moments were absolutely terrifying.
“We were feeling hopeless; we thought our sister had died,” Torres said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen. We couldn’t get in touch with anybody.”
Bianca suffered some bruising on her knee, but is otherwise OK, he said. She was taken to a hospital in Alabama.
“He wouldn’t put no kids in danger. That is not him,” said Alisa Louis, Caligone’s wife. "That is not his demeanor. If it ain’t right, he won’t do it. And I’m not just saying this because I know him. He is the sweetest, he would give you the last of anything he got.”
Louis says her husband had been making the trip with the students to Disney World for several years. She says he looked forward to the trip all year, the same as the kids.
“The kids knew him,” Louis said. "This is his trip. Every year. Harry is a person that, he has people that if he don’t do the trip, they won’t go.”
Louis said her husband was just seen by a doctor last week because he had to pass a fitness test. She says the doctor confirmed her husband did not have any chronic medical conditions and was in good health.
KHOU 11 checked and confirmed Caligone’s medical certification was renewed last week.
The president of First Class Tours was out of the country at the time of the crash. A spokesperson for the company says he turned around and is headed back to Houston after learning of the accident.
In a statement, First Class Tours said: “Our prayers are with the injured and their families at this time. We pledge our assistance in cooperating with local authorities in the investigation.”
This isn’t the first infraction for First Class Tours.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records show that in the past two years, the company has been involved in four other crashes, including a fatal crash in Houston in May 2017. In that crash, a bus driver failed to yield the right of way as it turned left and fatally struck a pedestrian who was in a crosswalk.
No one was injured or killed in the three other crashes.
The National Transportation Safety Board said it’s sending a team to investigate the cause of the crash.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said she spoke with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and told him her office will do whatever it can to assist the victims.
Abbott offered his condolences to the victims and families.
"I pray for a speedy recovery for all those injured, and I am especially grateful for the heroic actions of the Alabama first responders that undoubtedly helped save lives today," Abbott said. "Texas is prepared to offer any assistance necessary as we rally around the entire Channelview High School community during this difficult time."
KHOU reporters Janel Forte and Janelle Bludau reporting from Alabama; Jason Miles, Matt Dougherty, Grace White reporting from Houston. The Associated Press contributed to this report.