UPDATE: Chain reaction school bus crash injures at least 12
Ambulance and fire truck sirens mingled with the moans of children from Heritage Middle School Tuesday as emergency workers from throughout the area scrambled to a Chino Valley accident involving two school buses and two other vehicles.
Ambulances and a helicopter rushed a total of 12 people to hospitals. School officials said parents took even more children to hospitals.
Ground ambulances took 11 people - 10 of them children - to Yavapai Regional Medical Center's two campuses. The adult taken to YRMC was a woman driving one of two pickup trucks involved in the crash.
A medical helicopter flew the female driver of one of the school buses to Flagstaff Medical Center with serious injuries, Cmdr. Mark Garcia of the Chino Valley Police Department said.
The crash happened on Highway 89 at Road 4 North just before 4 p.m.
"A blue (pickup) truck was slowing down, possibly for somebody turning left," Garcia explained.
Another pickup truck behind it slowed almost to a stop, he continued. The first bus (Bus. No. 17) behind that truck saw it and slowed down, but the second bus (Bus No. 5) didn't and hit the first bus, Garcia said. That caused a chain reaction among the four vehicles with each one hitting the one in front of it.
A third bus following Bus No. 5 saw what was happening and quickly veered off the road to a stop, avoiding Bus No. 5.
"We stopped just in time," said 14-year-old Jake Ibbotson, who was in the third bus. "I looked up and kids were just pouring out of (Bus No. 5)."
Ibbotson said he didn't think anyone on his bus was hurt because of the driver's quick reaction.
A dozen feet away, a dusty red tarp lay on the weedy ground by the side of the road. Firefighters used it as a triage area for injured students. Some lay on backboards as firefighters strapped braces around their necks. Emergency workers poked and prodded other students sitting and lying on the tarp.
"Straighten your legs out," a Central Yavapai firefighter coaxed one young boy. "You're all right. Talk to me."
Parents who rushed to the scene slipped under the yellow caution tape to find their children. At its height, the crowd swelled to about 75 people.
School officials said about 40 students were on the two buses. Some students with minor injuries refused to go by ambulance and their parents took them to area hospitals, school officials said.
A young girl lay on the triage tarp crying, wiping her eyes, her long blond hair disheveled, one foot bare. Later a man scooped her up and carried her to a waiting car, accompanied by a woman and several other children.
Firefighters - some sweating, still cocooned in their heavy turnout gear - moved quickly and quietly from student to student, checking eyes, squeezing hands, running fingers down spines.
Other emergency workers were busy strapping students onto backboards, telling them everything would be fine.
At the far edge of the tarp, two men held up a white sheet, shielding a student from view as emergency workers conducted their examination.
At 4:55 p.m., another ambulance, siren wailing, pulled up.
Frantic parents continued to arrive.
"He called me from someone's cell phone," said mom Brandy Krumm of Paulden, putting her arm around her son. "He was distraught and said he'd been in a crash."
Austin Krumm, 11, said the crash was scary. He said he was sitting in the front of Bus No. 17 when it happened, and he hit his head. He said he was fine and didn't want firefighters to check him out. He tried to hold back tears, but he shivered suddenly and they ran silently down his cheeks.
A woman standing nearby urged him to let firefighters check him out.
"It'll save your mom money if they do it now, and she doesn't have to take you to the doctor," the woman said.
Austin hesitantly nodded his head in agreement, so his mom slipped him under the yellow tape and walked him toward a firefighter.
"My son hit his head and might need to be checked out," she said.
"Absolutely," said the burly firefighter as he knelt down and did just that.
From the moment firefighters arrived on scene, they worked to remove the driver of Bus No. 5, who had slid to the floor of the bus and lay trapped under its dashboard.
Shortly after 5 p.m., they got the driver out, loaded her onto a gurney and into a helicopter.
More than a dozen emergency vehicles from Chino Valley, Prescott, Prescott Valley, Central Yavapai Fire District and DPS responded to the scene.
Officers closed Highway 89 between Road 5 North and Road 3 North for hours so DPS technicians using special measuring equipment could try to determine the cause of the crash.
School officials at the scene declined to comment other than to say they did not believe any students were seriously hurt.
School Principal Scott Muir said the school would issue a press release later Tuesday night, but it had not arrived as of press time.
Garcia said DPS is in charge of the investigation and it was too early to determine who, if anyone, was at fault.