GRAY SUMMIT, Mo. – They worked through the summer, washing cars and selling candy, to pay for their annual summer trip to Six Flags Over Mid-America. And on Thursday morning, triumphant members of the Red Regiment Band boarded two school buses for the nearly 70-mile trip from their high school in St. James, Mo.
They almost made it.
Just over a dozen miles from their destination, the buses – one loaded with boys, the other with girls – were ensnared in a spectacular crash on Interstate-44 that claimed the life of one of their own and the driver of another vehicle.
“They’ve spent the last two weeks in the hot sun doing their drills getting prepared for this year’s program,” said Steve Lorts, whose son Taylor suffered minor injuries. “They were going up there to celebrate the end of band camp, to relax and enjoy.”
Exactly what happened around 10:15 a.m. CDT remained unclear. Investigators – to include the National Transportation Safety Board – say it could take a couple of weeks to figure it out.
The crash, about 40 miles southwest of St. Louis, drew national news coverage to the spectacle of one bus sitting atop a large truck tractor, with a mutilated pickup truck sandwiched between them and a second bus embedded in the back of the first.
Killed in the impact were Jessica Brinker, a member of the John F. Hodge High School band, who sat in the last row of the first bus, and pickup driver Daniel Schatz, 19, who was a reserve quarterback last year at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
About 60 people were aboard the buses, with dozens sent to hospitals by ambulance, helicopter or charter bus, for treatment of injuries or precautionary examinations.
The pileup was along a stretch of I-44, near Gray Summit, where road construction has been under way since March. Initial reports suggest that the road work, as well as a stalled car, may have contributed.
The president of Climate Express, which owns the truck tractor, said his driver was slowing because of construction-related congestion when he was struck from behind by the pickup. The tractor was not towing a trailer.
The pickup was hit by the first bus, said Tim Laske, president of the Washington, Mo.-based trucking company. Then the second bus rammed the first.