Feds say college bus crash site had many accidents

Updated: March 4, 2007, 1:49 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

ATLANTA -- Georgia transportation officials said Sunday they had no immediate plans to close or add safety signs to the highway exit ramp where a bus carrying a college baseball team crashed and killed six people, including the driver.

The state Department of Transportation wants to see recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board before adding any new safety devices such as signs or stoplights to the Interstate 75 ramp, said spokesman David Spear.

"We won't wait until their final published report. If during the course of their conversations it might make this better, we're going to act on it," he said.

The team from the Mennonite-affiliated Bluffton University was traveling to its annual spring training in Florida when the charter bus crashed before daybreak Friday. Investigators said the driver apparently mistook an exit ramp for a regular lane, and the bus crashed into a barrier at a T-shaped intersection and plummeted off the overpass onto the highway below.

The NTSB said Saturday that the accident site has had numerous crashes and can be difficult for drivers to navigate. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that an analysis of the state transportation database showed 82 other accidents on the ramp with two deaths. Spear said he could not confirm that number.

"I don't believe that's an inordinately high number in a major metropolitan area," Spear said. "Certainly there have not been any accidents with the severity of what we witnessed."

There are two "Prepare to Stop" signs on the ramp, which exits off the left lane, and the same words are painted on the ramp itself, he said.

"Our view of that ramp has been that it is in total compliance with industry design standards," Spear said.

Fred Hanscom, director of independent consulting group Transportation Research Corp., said the ramp could have larger signs, a stoplight at the top or pavement grooves that make a noise to warn drivers to slow down.

"The fact that this ramp went almost parallel with the main line [of the interstate] was a confusing factor," Hanscom said. "Drivers normally expect ramps to go to the right and not the left."

There are tire marks at the scene, but it is unclear when the driver realized his mistake and tried to correct it, said Kitty Higgins, who is leading the NTSB's investigation.

Higgins said investigators are trying to determine why the driver took the exit ramp at full speed.

The team from Bluffton University was jolted awake when the bus crashed, landing on its side. The wreck spewed gas onto Atlanta's Interstate 75 and scattered baseball equipment across the roadway.

Bluffton's coach James Grandey was still in intensive care Saturday, according to a report in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. He was sitting at the very front of the bus when it crashed.

Players visited the coach in the hospital Saturday. One player, sophomore James Hausman, told the paper Grandey was "unable to talk. He can communicate on paper with us."

Hausman said the coach is going to have facial surgery Sunday and is also suffering from a dislocated right ankle. Grandey's mother, father and wife are by his side at the hospital.

"He is a wonderful man, a wonderful coach -- we think the world of him," said Hausman, who suffered bumps and bruises in the crash.

A group of six players left Piedmont Hospital at 1:15 Saturday afternoon after an hourlong visit with their coach, the paper reported.

Hausman also told the paper that most of the players who were not seriously injured will fly out of Atlanta this weekend. Their coach is expected to be in the hospital for a week or two.

The crash left four teammates dead, plus the driver and his wife. Twenty-nine were injured, and eight remained hospitalized Saturday night. Five were in serious or critical condition, and the rest were in fair or stable condition.

Family members of killed and injured students were to return to Toledo on Sunday afternoon on board a charter flight.

The team was on its way to Florida for spring training and had traveled all night from Ohio. The driver had switched out with another driver an hour before the wreck.

Team member Tony Moore said he fell asleep on the bus floor after a late night of watching movies, listening to music and chatting about upcoming games.

The next thing the 21-year-old junior remembers is hitting the rail on the overpass, rolling around and "the final slam in the ground."

Moore was trapped between bus seats until his teammates pulled him out. For a long moment, they stood looking at each other in the pre-dawn darkness inside the bus that had fallen 30 feet.

The legs of Mike Ramthun and Chris Bauman were pinned beneath the bus. Moore and other teammates tried to calm them, telling them help would be on the way. They got the roof escape hatch open and stumbled out on the freeway.

"We were trying to get everybody loose off," Moore said. "Everybody was still in shock."

Timothy Kay, a pitcher, and others tried to lift the bus and pull the pinned players out.

Moore said he looked up and saw some people wearing purple -- the school color of the Mennonite-affiliated university -- on the overpass. Four passengers, including his brother Jason, a 23-year-old assistant coach, had been thrown from the bus when it crashed through a concrete wall on the overpass.

Killed were two freshman, Scott Harmon and Cody Holp, and two sophomores, Tyler Williams and David Betts. The driver and his wife, Jerome and Jean Niemeyer, also died.

A.J. Ramthun woke up in his window seat to see the ground come up at him as the bus was falling. It was only when his seriously injured coach grabbed his arm afterward that he realized his collarbone was broken.

"We looked, and thought, 'How did we survive that?"' Ramthun said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.