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Atlanta Bus Crash Leaves Six Dead, 29 Injured; Are America's Highways Too Dangerous? Deadly Bus Crash: Making Bus Travel Safer; In the Wake of the Storm: Tornado Survivors' Stories

Aired March 2, 2007 - 20:00   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everybody. Glad to have you with us.
Tonight, a very special hour -- a horrifying bus crash brings out in the open the hidden dangers on our country's highways and in our buses.

Before dawn, those dangers combined in Atlanta in a tragedy that left six people dead, 29 injured. Authorities think the bus driver may have mistaken a left-side exit off the interstate for the left- hand lane the bus was using. The bus sped up over the ramp, crossed over a bridge, plunging on to the highway below -- among the 35 people aboard, the baseball team from Bluffton University in Ohio. They were passing through Atlanta on their way to games in Florida.

The tragedy has Bluffton in shock. The university canceled classes. Students there are holding a prayer vigil as we speak.

As I said, this tragedy brings safety concerns across the country out in the open tonight. We will spend most of this hour exploring them, starting with the very latest tonight from the Atlanta investigation.

Drew Griffin is standing by on the overpass at the exact point where the bus flew over the edge of the bridge and down onto the highway below.

Drew, what do we know tonight?

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: Paula, how could it happen is the question before asked. The NTSB in town -- expecting a news conference later this evening, as they get ready to try to determine what happened.

But I will show you. That is the top of the exit right there. And all indications are, when that bus driver came to this intersection, a T-intersection, he still believed he was on the freeway in the HOV lane.

He careened across that intersection without stopping, according to the skid marks. In fact, this is the only real skid mark right down here, Paula, an effort to avert hitting this block wall, which is right here on top of the overpass, the wall virtually unscathed, as this bus, traveling so fast, hit and catapulted over the top, right on to the freeway below -- all of this apparently the result right now, indications are, just a bus driver's error.


GRIFFIN (voice-over): The explanation is simple to anyone trying to navigate through an unfamiliar city in the dark of early morning. The bus was headed south on Interstate 75 in this HOV lane.

It is here, at this point, the bus followed the clearly marked exit heading up a ramp, instead of straight down the highway. Reflectors on the ground warn of a stop ahead. But the evidence left behind paints a picture of a bus traveling on to this exit ramp at high speed, barreling through the intersection, and smashing over the other side, leading to the conclusion the driver had no idea this was the end of the road.

MAJOR C.W. MOSS, ATLANTA POLICE DEPARTMENT: We don't have any evidence on the roadway suggesting that the bus had attempted to stop in a -- in a quick manner, if you will. There were no skid marks.

GRIFFIN: Sleeping in the back, A.J. Ramthun, an 18-year-old freshman, says the only warning was the crash itself.

A.J. RAMTHUN, BLUFFTON BASEBALL PLAYER: All I remember, as I woke up -- I woke up as soon as the bus hit the overpass' wall. And that's when I looked up. And the bus landed on the left side, which is the side I was sitting on.

And I just looked out and saw the -- the road coming up after me. And it was just -- that's all. The first thing I heard was Curt telling me to get off the bus. There was gas everywhere. I heard some guys crying: "I'm stuck. I'm stuck."

I walked by coach Grandey, who -- who is now in stable condition. But, at that time, he was -- he was horrible -- he was so bad off. And I tried to help him up. And that's when I realized my shoulder was hurt. And I told coach he was just going to have to sit there and wait for the medics to get there.

GRIFFIN: What was going through the driver's mind? What mistakes may have been made? Why the driver turned at such a high rate of speed on to an exit ramp, we will never know. Both the bus driver and his wife were among the dead.

Ramthun, who has a broken collarbone and stitches on his ear, says there was no plan to stop anywhere in Atlanta.

RAMTHUN: We were supposed to be driving all of the way through. The next time we were supposed to stop was supposed to be 8:00 this morning for breakfast.

GRIFFIN: Atlanta police say they have ruled out at least one possibility, no evidence of driver fatigue. Around an hour before the crash, the bus company actually conducted a driver switch, a fresh driver and his wife, taking over the trip.

MOSS: Essentially, a second driver met them at an area north of the city. The bus stopped. They swapped drivers. And then they continued southbound.

GRIFFIN: And while road crews were out making sure all exit signs were in place, and the exit was properly marked, it may still have been confusing to an out-of-town driver.

On Interstate 75 heading into Atlanta, this exit for an HOV lane is the first of its kind, where you leave the highway on the left.


ZAHN: It's absolutely terrifying to see that animation, Drew.

I know that you have been looking into the driver of the bus, the -- the charter company that he worked for. What have you been able to confirm today?

GRIFFIN: There are no answers there, Paula, only questions. This driver has a pretty darn clean record. We went back to 1992. He has a speeding ticket. That is it.

And, as for the company, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, they got a satisfactory rating in their last inspection. They have 20 drivers, seven buses, and not a single accident recorded in the past 24 months.

So, we're dealing with a clean driver, a clean bus company, and a terrible, terrible error.

ZAHN: Drew Griffin, thank you so much for that report.

My next guest found himself in the middle of this deadly accident as he was on his way to work this morning.

"Atlanta Journal-Constitution" reporter Mike Morris was driving on Interstate 75 when he came upon the crash. He was one of the first people on the scene, and was able to help some of the injured passengers.

Mike Morris joins us now.

Good of you to be with us tonight.

Describe to us what you saw at the point of impact.

MIKE MORRIS, REPORTER, "ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION": Well, I was on my way into work, and I noticed the brake lights ahead of me. And, as I got down closer, the traffic came to a stop. And I called 911.

At first, I thought it was a tractor trailer that had overturned on the interstate. And the operator asked me if there were any injuries. So, I got out of my car to go see if there were injuries. And, as I got closer to the wreck site, I -- I saw the emergency hatch on the top of the bus, which was now on its side, pop open. And several young men started climbing out.

And that's when I realized it wasn't a tractor trailer, but it was a bus. And I knew it was something much worse.

ZAHN: And how badly injured were those young men that were able to get out?

MORRIS: Several that -- that crawled out, that crawled out through the emergency hatch, they immediately laid down on the ground. I'm not sure how badly they were injured, but it seemed pretty bad.

Several others, maybe two or three, got out, and they were walking around. And several other motorists and myself, we started trying to get those guys just over to the side of the interstate, over, so they would be out of the -- you know, as far away from the bus as we can get them, and got them to sit down on the concrete median wall.

They almost -- all of them had -- were bloodied up a good bit. It looked like they had been jostled around quite a bit on the bus.

ZAHN: And...

MORRIS: But there were several that were able to walk.

ZAHN: I imagine your instinct, though, was to try to -- to get inside that bus and try to remove some of the debris to help the people that were trapped.

MORRIS: Right.

It was totally dark in the bus. So, at one point, I went back to my car to try to find a flashlight, because it was so dark in the bus. We couldn't see. You know, you couldn't see what was going on inside the bus, because all of the lights had gone out.

And I also was trying to help the kids that were on the side -- already out of the bus, on the side of the road. One of them, I asked him where they were from, and he told me.

And, then, the next, he said: "Well, sir, I'm freezing. Can you find me a blanket, please?"

So, I started to find a blanket for the young man.

ZAHN: And I -- I suppose, at that point, these kids were in an absolute state of shock.


There was no -- there was no screaming that I saw right then. Every -- they were all real calm, but I think they were just all in a total state of shock.

ZAHN: Mike, what is so hard to understand, when we see the animation -- we are going to try to get it back up now on -- on the screen -- for -- for people who aren't familiar with that stretch of -- of the interstate, how a driver could have made this mistake.

You drive this piece of roadway all the time. Explain to us how this could have happened.

MORRIS: I think it would be very easy for it to happen, because it's so rare for -- to have a left-hand exit ramp on any interstate. You're used to going off to the right. And, if you're in the HOV lane there -- and I don't think he had any real -- he might have not had any warning that he was really off of the interstate, until he got up to the top of the ramp.

And there's no -- there's not a traffic light or anything at the top of the ramp. There's a stop sign, but no traffic light that would -- would have been real obvious as he was coming up the ramp, I don't think.

ZAHN: And some investigators told us they weren't sure even how obvious that stop sign was, particularly traveling at the speeds...

MORRIS: Right.

ZAHN: ... they think this bus was traveling at.

MORRIS: Right.

ZAHN: Mike Morris, thank you for your eyewitness account. Really appreciate your joining us that. I know it has been a...

MORRIS: You're -- you're...

ZAHN: ... treacherous day for you.

MORRIS: It's been a rough day for me, but not nearly as rough for the people at the college. And our hearts go out to them.

ZAHN: Ours do, as well. Thanks again.

Now, the investigation of the Atlanta bus crash will be long and painstaking.

Nobody knows that better than Mary Schiavo. She is a former inspector general for the Department of Transportation. She joins us now.

Thanks for your time tonight.

Walk us through how the investigation proceeds from here.

MARY SCHIAVO, FORMER TRANSPORTATION INSPECTOR GENERAL: Well, from here the NTSB -- actually, before they ever got the go-team together and flew out there from Washington, they started doing a number of things that will be crucial.

They will have grabbed the -- and secured the safety records for the bus company, any maintenance repairs, any kind of a history on the bus. They will have put into motion to get the medical records and the history of the driver.

On the scene, they will be doing a toxicology on the driver. They will be checking the recording devices. This bus is much like an airplane that it does have some rudimentary data recording. It's not as many parameters as an aircraft. They will check that.

They will be photographing the road conditions. The signage will be very important at the scene. They will be checking, among other things, things that people might not think of, the guardrails, the condition of the signs, the -- any -- any chance that there would be survivability issues on the bus.

Was the bus equipped with seat belts? Literally everything, the NTSB will be recording, filming, taking records of, sampling -- and interviews of the witnesses, both on the bus and anyone else who saw the accident, very crucial the next 24 hours.

ZAHN: And our reporter Drew Griffin was saying, he talked to a lot of people today -- and, of course, they're not investigators themselves, although I think maybe two of the men he talked to were -- and -- and they basically, to them, it appeared to be driver error.

What do you think the investigators will find when the investigation is over?

SCHIAVO: Well, certainly, the investigators will find driver error.

And, for those of us who have lived in big cities with HOV lanes, we may be used to this kind of a setup. But I myself hail from this area of -- in Ohio. And I have driven I-75 to Atlanta -- we have an office in Atlanta -- many times. And, if you're not used to those HOV lanes or a left exit, this is really the first one you come up on, on that I-70 stretch from the Toledo, Ohio, area down to Atlanta.

And this is the first of the left exits in this particular part on the HOV lane. So, they will be looking at signage. It will be very important. Did they have fair warning? Does it reflect in the dark? It was still dark. And, so, I think that they might be looking at the roadway and also at that guardrail.

The Department of Transportation has, for many years, asked for the improvement of guardrails, so that the buses don't fly over the guardrails. And, so, I think that the road vet itself and the signage may come in for some criticism -- in the end, bus driver error and also some road issues, most likely. But time will tell.

ZAHN: Mary Schiavo, thanks so much. Please stay with us, because we want to check back in with you...

SCHIAVO: Thank you.

ZAHN: ... in a little bit. A little bit later on, we are going to look at ways to make all of our roads safer. And we all want to get the benefit of your expertise, of course.

Out in the open next: shock, disbelief and disorientation. Just minutes ago, a charter flight carrying families of the accident victims arrived in Atlanta. Our Amanda Rosseter is at Grady Memorial Hospital, where most of the victims are being treated tonight.

What is being done for those families, Amanda?

AMANDA ROSSETER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, right now, they are set -- the Red Cross is especially, Paula, helping set up a reunification area at the local hotels.

But, of course, this has been a long, terrifying, tragic day for these families. Four of them have lost children. And so many more are going deal with serious injuries and recovery. Their first challenge this morning was for the majority of those families to get from Ohio to Atlanta.

AirTran Airways stepped up very early this morning and helped by booking a charter flight for those families from Ohio to Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

This is the video that we have for you. They -- they came in just within the past hour or so. They were taken off of the plane here and loaded on to limousine buses. And, then, they were given a police escort to Grady Hospital, where 16 students are in good condition, we are told, right now. Three are still in very serious condition.

Now, many of these families were awakened very early this morning by phone calls from cell phones from their sons, saying they had just been in this horrifying crash.

We talked to one such family a little bit earlier this afternoon, the Moores. They arrived here before -- earlier this afternoon. And their 23-year-old son is one of the coaches for the team. Their 21- year-old son is a player.


BOB MOORE, FATHER OF BUS CRASH SURVIVOR: He got thrown out at the top of the overpass, before the bus went over. Somehow, four of them got thrown out up there and were on the road up on top.

And he said: "I just sat there, dad, and watched the bus go over the overpass."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How are you holding up?

MARYANNE MOORE, MOTHER OF BUS CRASH SURVIVOR: I'm doing OK. I feel so bad for the mothers whose sons did not make it, because we knew most of the kids on the team.


B. MOORE: We're just thankful. And we're thanking God that, you know, they're OK, and it's been a -- it's been a -- quite a day.

(END VIDEOTAPE) ROSSETER: Now, Paula, to help them cope, the doctors here at Grady told us a little bit earlier that one of their main goals is to make sure that these young men are released to loved ones and have somewhere to go and someone to go with when they are discharged. They're not simply going release them from the hospital and just let them go in a strange city -- Paula.

ZAHN: I can't imagine the -- the shock that these families must be feeling. And I guess what must magnify this is, from what I understand, they come from such a close-knit university community. These are people who really have known each other for a very long time.


We understand that this is a -- this is a liberal -- a small liberal arts university, about 1,200 students. Many of them know each other very, very well, most of them from that Ohio area -- in fact, one -- only one of the players on the bus is from another area. And it happened to be right here in Atlanta. And we spoke with his family earlier this afternoon. They just happened to be in their own hometown when it happened.

ZAHN: Amanda Rosseter...


ZAHN: ... thanks.

Now we want to go to a community that we were just talking about that is reeling in the aftermath of this crash. Right now, there is a prayer vigil going on at Bluffton University in Ohio, where students and faculty are in mourning for the members of the school's baseball team who were killed in this morning's accident.

We're going bring more of the campus reaction to this tragedy out in the open now.

Our Jason Carroll is standing by at Bluffton University tonight.

Jason, describe what you have seen unfold on campus tonight.

JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Paula, I have to tell you -- well, Paula, I have to tell you, since being out here, it has been very, very difficult for the people here at Bluffton University.

As you said, right now, a candlelight vigil is taking place. The gymnasium is packed. And there are very few dry eyes in the house.


CARROLL (voice-over): Students at Bluffton University were inconsolable, tears for four members of the school's baseball team killed in a bus accident on an Atlanta interstate while on their way to their first game of the season. The university is a small Christian liberal arts school with about 1,200 students. The town of Bluffton is a rural community about 50 miles south of Toledo, with a population of only 4,200, including the school's student body.

So, when something of this magnitude happens, Jake Slager, a senior at Bluffton, says, everyone feels it.

JAKE SLAGER, BLUFFTON UNIVERSITY STUDENT: Everybody pretty much knows each other, or at least of each other. So, everybody is impacted.

CARROLL: Baseball players Tyler Williams, David Betts, Scott Harmon, and Cody Holp were killed in the crash.

Colin Yoder and his friends, who are athletes at Bluffton, knew them all.

COLIN YODER, BLUFFTON UNIVERSITY STUDENT: I played basketball against Tyler and with Tyler. And I had class with David Betts. And, you know, just to think that, you know, one day, you're -- you're sitting in class with these guys, or playing basketball with them, and, when something like this happens, you -- you don't even know how to react, really.

CARROLL: Rustin Pickett was on the baseball team for two years, before he switched to play football. But he never forgot his friend who played outfield.

RUSTIN PICKETT, BLUFFTON UNIVERSITY STUDENT: A good friend of mine was Tyler Williams, just hung out, played ball together, and worked out together. So, and, since we're so close, like Colin said, you see everybody every day.

CARROLL: Classes at Bluffton were canceled after the accident. Crisis counselors are here for anyone who needs them. So, too, are alumni, like Bluffton's mayor, Frederick Rodabaugh. He has lived here all his life.

(on camera): How painful is it for you at this time?

FRED RODABAUGH, MAYOR OF BLUFFTON, OHIO: It's not as painful -- I won't say it's as painful as losing someone from your own family, but it's very close to that. And you feel very sympathetic towards the families of those that were lost and those that were injured.

CARROLL (voice-over): As flowers start to collect on Bluffton's baseball field, the student here are trying to cope with a heartbreaking lesson in how fragile life can be.

BEN MCCULLOUGH, BLUFFTON UNIVERSITY STUDENT: We're all 18-to-22- year-olds, think we can do anything in the world, and nothing can affect us. But there's always -- there's accidents that can happen. And it's just a -- a rude awakening.

(END VIDEOTAPE) CARROLL: You know, Paula, as a reporter, you're oftentimes sent to small communities like this, and you hear people say over and over, it's the kind of place where everyone knows each other. And you come to a place like Bluffton, and that really is the case.

Everyone here basically knows each other. And this is the -- this is the type of thing that's really going to be affecting the community and the students here for quite some time.

ZAHN: And I guess...


ZAHN: ... there's a certain irony, Jason, in the fact that they come from this close-knit Mennonite community, a community that is given so much credit for reaching out to others during times of crisis.

Jason Carroll, thanks.


ZAHN: Appreciate it.

Out in the open next: What really happens when a hospital's trauma unit is flooded with disaster victims? Our own Dr. Sanjay Gupta will show us. He happens to work at that hospital.

And the accident also brings another important safety question out in the open: Why don't buses have seat belts? And should they be required by the government?



ZAHN: Many of those injured in today's crash were rushed to Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital, which is one of the country's top trauma centers.

But we wanted to know what really happens when the victims of a terrible accident suddenly arrive at one of these centers.

We're bringing that out in the open now with chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who, when he's not working for CNN, is a neurosurgeon at Grady Hospital and has dealt with many medical emergencies.

So, Sanjay, walk us through what happens at a trauma center, like the -- the one where you're standing outside tonight, when you get the call?


It's -- it's a -- it's a big trauma center, so, several different moving parts all sort of converge at once. First of all, we all get pages, all the doctors in town, basically saying: Be advised. Stand by. Possible multiple patients coming to the hospital.

Paramedics at the scene sort of are driving the whole situation. They arrive as quickly as they can at the scene, basically, immediately start doing what's called triage. And that's basically establishing priority of care, taking blood pressures, taking heart rates, making sure that people are breathing OK, and -- and checking their level of consciousness.

This is all happening simultaneously. They're making phone calls back to the hospital over here. The emergency room doctors, the trauma surgeons are standing by. They're already starting to call in the neurosurgeons and orthopedic surgeons to also be in the hospital, waiting for these patients to arrive.

And, Paula, once they hit the door, they get into the ambulance bay, they're immediately wheeled into the emergency room, which is right over there, quickly assessed. This is all taking place within minutes, Paula -- not hours, but within minutes.

Many of them go up and get a CAT scan, a C.T. scan, evaluating their brain, their chest, their abdomen, making sure there's no particular bleeding. If there is, they immediately go in a special elevator, six floors up, and straight to the operating room. It's a very orchestrated event.

ZAHN: How tough are some of the decisions that have to be made about who actually ends up getting treated first in the emergency room?

GUPTA: Well, the good news about trauma, it -- it can be difficult, but the good news about trauma is that it's very systematized.

You take care of patients in a very sequential order. You make sure their airway is established. You make sure they're breathing and their circulation.

And then -- and, beyond that, you can immediately assess who is going to need what when. So, if someone needs to go to the CAT scanner right away, because you're worried about their altered level of consciousness, you can get them a CAT scan right away.

If someone has -- has profound low blood pressure, it probably means that they're bleeding, and they need to go straight to the operating room. So, as difficult as it might be, there's -- trauma is very systematic. The trauma surgeons are talking to the neurosurgeons, talking to the orthopedic surgeons, and making decisions all within a couple of minutes.

ZAHN: Obviously, these kids were a long way from home when this accident happened. But, when parents heard about it, many of them got on the road immediately and started driving.

What kind of support system is in place for family members once they arrive at the hospital?

GUPTA: It -- it's a good question.

There's a couple of things in place. First of all, there are social workers who are part of the emergency room staff. So, social workers are immediately talking to patients who are able to talk, and immediately setting up communication between those patients and their parents, and then also being available for the -- for the parents when they arrive here.

ZAHN: Dr. Sanjay Gupta, thanks for educating us tonight. As always, appreciate it.

GUPTA: Thank you.


ZAHN: And, as we mentioned at the top of the hour, a -- a charter flight has also just arrived, with many other family members trying to be reunited with their kids at that hospital.

As we continue our special hour on the Atlanta bus crash, we all know that seat belts save lives, so why aren't there more on busses, especially school buses? And should they be mandated?



TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Ted Rowlands in Los Angeles.

And this is Stanley. He's been driving a bus for more than 40 years. Coming up, we will talk about the inherent dangers of traveling by bus.

That's coming up on PAULA ZAHN NOW.




RAMTHUN: I remember our catcher, Curt Schroeder, tapped me on the head, seeing if I was awake, telling me we needed to get out because there was gas all over the place.


ZAHN: The heartbreaking words of a survivor of today's bus disaster.

Out in the open tonight, following that bus accident in Atlanta, a lot of people are wondering, just how safe are our buses? Many of them don't even have seat belts. But there is a new invention that may change all that.

Here's Dan Lothian.


DAN LOTHIAN, CNN BOSTON BUREAU CHIEF (voice-over): It's a safe way to get to school, but, sometimes, the bus never arrives. Tragic accidents send young children to the hospital, or worse.

In Huntsville, Alabama, four teens died last year when this bus plunged off a highway overpass. There was a school bus accident in Liberty, Missouri, nearly two years ago that injured about two dozen children.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Today was a very difficult day for us.

LOTHIAN: From the Boston area...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's a little frightening.

LOTHIAN: ... to Central Florida, there's a trail of twisted yellow metal.

(on camera): The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says there are fewer than eight fatalities inside a school bus each year, and that it's nearly eight times safer to ride inside a school bus than in a car.

But, every time there's an accident, some parents worry, and the debate over placing seat belts on all school busses heats up.

(voice over): High-padded seat backs are designed to create a safety zone in a collision, but what happens when a bus runs off the road or rolls over? Take a look again in slow motion.

Some people want to see a federal law requiring all school busses to have either lap belts or harness systems for passengers, but Dr. David Mooney, trauma director at Children's Hospital in Boston, says just any belt won't do.

DR. DAVID MOONEY, CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL BOSTON: The lap belts will sometimes ride up higher, and when a child's in a crash, it can injure their intestines, injure their spine.

LOTHIAN: A shoulder-lap belt combination is seen as a safer option, even though the government calls its benefits miniscule.

But Anne and Charles Schewe say something has to be done, not only in this country, but overseas.

ANNE SCHEWE, SARA'S MOTHER: And if she had a seat belt on, I'm convinced that she would -- she would be alive today.

LOTHIAN: Their 20-year-old daughter Sara died while studding abroad when the bus she was on in India crashed.

CHARLES SCHEWE, SARA'S FATHER: The bus that Sara was on went off the road and rolled. LOTHIAN: It's the news no parent wants to hear.

C. SCHEWE: And he said, "I'm sorry to tell you that your daughter was killed."

LOTHIAN: The Schewes decided to turn their loss into something good, supporting the use of seat belts on all school busses and coming up with an idea that's led to the invention of a portable seat belt.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our basic design is this carrying case right now that weighs five pounds. Pull it around, sit down on it, and over your head.

LOTHIAN: An engineering professor at the University of Massachusetts and two students came up with the design that they say is easy for anyone to use.

JOSH DOOLITTLE, ENGINEERING STUDENT: It really inspired us and made us want to engineer the best seat belt we could.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Saving lives is a huge, huge goal for us.

LOTHIAN: It's still not ready to hit the market, but it's one couple's dream, providing one more safety option for a child on a bus.

Dan Lothian, CNN, Boston.


ZAHN: What an interesting idea.

There's another thing to add. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says, get this, 25 million schoolchildren are transported by bus every year and they travel about 4.5 billion miles.

"Out in the Open" next, in our special coverage of the Atlanta bus crash, a view of the highway and its hidden dangers from the bus driver's seat.

And then a little bit later on, the southern tornadoes, dozens of them. "Out in the Open" tonight, critics who say a high school actually put its students in harm's way.


ZAHN: Welcome back to our special hour on this Friday night.

Today's bus accident also highlights the dangers on the roads for bus drivers. And it's bringing "Out in the Open" the daily risks of maneuvering huge vehicles through a maze of highways and streets often not well marked, while worrying about the safety of dozens of passengers in the back.

Ted Rowlands talked to one bus driver today in Los Angeles.


TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Stanley Tsugawa has been driving a bus for more than 40 years. He says having passengers' lives in his hands is an awesome responsibility.

TSUGAWA: If you roll a bus over or anything of that nature, you know, you're going have people dying.

ROWLANDS: According to federal statistics, more than 300 people are killed in a wide array of accidents involving busses each year. This 2005 Houston bus fire which killed 23 nursing home residents was caused by poor maintenance. In 2002, a Greyhound bus accident in Fresno, California, was caused by a passenger attacking the driver.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People were screaming, and all of a sudden, it flipped on its side and slid, and it was bumping.

ROWLANDS: Two people were killed in that accident, and three passengers were killed in Santa Maria, California, when a Greyhound driver suffered a seizure.

Stanley says most drivers have had some close calls. He's had a few involving bad road conditions. He's even had passengers fight on his bus.

TSUGAWA: Those things you never forget. There are certain things that it's like a brand. You know, it's branded in you already and you'll never forget it. But, like I said, life goes on, so you just have to continue.

ROWLANDS: Stanley says every time there's a major accident like the Atlanta tragedy, bus drivers across the country think of the danger and the responsibility they face on the road.

TSUGAWA: Yes, it's a reminder. No one wants to remember it, but it's a reminder.

ROWLANDS: Ted Rowlands, CNN, Los Angeles.


ZAHN: And more now on the dangers facing bus drivers and how to make bus travel safer for all of us.

With me once again, Mary Schiavo, former inspector general of the Department of Transportation.

Welcome back.

SCHIAVO: Thank you.

ZAHN: So Stanley, I think, did a really good job of helping us understand what these drivers are up against, not only mechanical failures, but in his case sometimes 20, 30 people can be fighting behind him and he's trying to drive. What do you see as the gravest danger these drivers face?

SCHIAVO: Well, probably the greatest danger they face is just the day-to-day actual work a day, the job that they have to do. There's tremendous pressures in the industry, and it doesn't appear that it applied here, but what you often find when you work these accidents -- and I've worked many bus accidents -- but what you often find is that the company itself has safety violations, has a record of problems, has been pulled off the highway when they have motor vehicle inspections, or pushes its drivers to drive beyond the limit.

I've also had situations where I've looked at where drivers have had substance abuse problems or there's, as the driver mentioned, fights going on in the bus. So often just the grind of working or the conditions that the drivers may find themselves in put people, as well as, of course, the drivers, in grave, grave danger.

That doesn't seem to be the case here, but often what you find in any kind of interstate transportation is sometimes the accidents follow when rules are skirted.

ZAHN: There are a lot of people who think that there should be new rules enforced -- the use of seat belts in buses. And we mentioned in one of the pieces earlier on that there are only five states in this country that now require it.

Should the government mandate it everywhere?

SCHIAVO: Actually, the government should mandate it everywhere, but the government is torn between sort of the ying and the yang of the issue. The government will say and will point to statistics that say, you know, a lot of people are not dying in bus accidents. But when people do die in bus accidents -- and I work school bus accidents, as well as these motor coach accidents -- then people say, well, it's such an obvious thing, that you need the seat belts. And that does make the accidents more crash-worthy.

Many government studies, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Department of Transportation, have shown that seat belts will help and will save lives, but the government will point to cost benefit analyses that say, look, for what the government considers a few number of people that die in bus accidents every year, they do not want to mandate the cost. And they will also point out that many entities such as schools and counties and states, they may argue that they don't necessarily have to follow federal regulations even though the federal regulators think so.

ZAHN: What is equally alarming, though, is something that you also mentioned when we talk about what investigators are looking at, at this hour and this crash. And the fact that there was potentially insufficient signage, or at least signage that you couldn't see at night if you came barreling up that HOV lane, or just simply the driver not understanding the route, period.

SCHIAVO: Yes. It's a very important issue, and many times the NTSB has looked at the conditions of the roadway. And I don't mean slippery or, you know, pitted or problems with the road, but with signage, with the guardrails, with really what a driver is confronted with in the dark.

Highways are supposed to be obviously user friendly. You're supposed to be able to tell where you're going. You shouldn't have to cross a number of lanes of traffic. And this is particularly problematic on this stretch of road.

I'm familiar with it. We have an office in Atlanta, too, and I go down there a lot. And for your HOV lanes to exit on the left, it's new. It's a condition you're not used to.

You're traveling along at the highway -- by the way, the police patrol this stretch, so there isn't often a lot of speeding on this particular stretch. It's well patrolled. But then you also have the issue of the guardrails.

ZAHN: Sure.

SCHIAVO: When I was inspector general, we worked a number of cases with those, too. Was this sufficient? Could something have been different? There's a number of recommendations out that you construct the guardrail in such a way that it actually pushes the vehicle back out on to the roadbed instead of letting it fly over the guardrail.

ZAHN: One of the many...

SCHIAVO: So there are a lot of things that they'll be looking at.

ZAHN: Exactly. One of those details I think it will take a while to nail down.

Mary Schiavo, thank you for your insights. Appreciate it.

SCHIAVO: Thank you.

ZAHN: And we're going to move on to a developing story now. After a deadly tornado, a safety concern comes "Out in the Open." Was too little done to keep the students safe? Should they ever have been in school in the first place?

Then coming up at the top of the hour, "LARRY KING LIVE." Anna Nicole Smith's funeral with all of the ruffles and flourishes, as you'll see.


ZAHN: "Out in the Open," this I-Report picture of the science hall at Enterprise High School in Alabama after it was hit by a tornado yesterday afternoon. The cell phone picture comes from Lauren Aylworth, one of the students who survived.

It really gives you a sense of just how powerful that storm was.

The tornado outbreak killed 10 people in Alabama, nine in Georgia. President Bush visits that zone tomorrow.

Our Susan Roesgen is at Enterprise High School, where a controversy over putting the students in harm's way is "Out in the Open" tonight.

So, Susan, there were eight deaths at this high school. What are people debating tonight?

SUSAN ROESGEN, CNN GULF COAST CORRESPONDENT: Well, they're wondering whether the school should have let the student go outside, maybe get in their own cars or on the school buses and try to outrun this tornado. But actually, the school staff, the mayor, the governor, even some parents told me, Paula, absolutely not. They thought that this brick high school would be the safest place to be.

And in the story of this tragedy, we have found the story of a hero.


ROESGEN (voice over): Tim Jackson is a parent who is both proud and grieving. Grieving because his son A.J. was one of the eight students who died, but proud because he knows his son saved another student's life.

TIM JACKSON, FATHER OF VICTIM: One of the rescuers and one of the guys that were there had said that A.J. had kept a concrete beam from falling on a girl to save her life, and that she survived. I don't know who the girl is, but that sounds just like A.J. With a smile on his face, he would do it again.

ROESGEN: The students were huddled in the hallways when the tornado struck and A.J., a 16-year-old junior, made a split-second decision.

MARK SHELDON, RESCUER: He was in where the walls were collapsing, and he basically jumped -- got himself in front of the wall before it landed on her. And unfortunately, the walls landed on him. And she slid out of the way so she could get to safety. And we dragged her out of the building and went back and got more.

JACKSON: He's in a better place.

ROESGEN: Tim Jackson spent the day making funeral arrangements. His son was a school cheerleader.

JACKSON: He was a wonderful, wonderful young man, and he's in a better place. And he's up there in heaven doing stunts right now. And I can't wait until I get up there to see him again.


ROESGEN: Now, the students and teachers here at this high school had practiced tornado drills before, Paula. They knew what to do. They got in the hallways of the school, they crouched down, they covered their heads with their hands. They thought they were ready, they thought they would be safe. But when this tornado struck the high school dead-on with 150-mile-an- hour winds, eight students and one hallway all huddled together just really didn't have a chance -- Paula.

ZAHN: And I guess what is so controversial there tonight among some of these families is there was at least a two-hour warning before this tornado struck.

So what are authorities saying about that? Are they defending that?

ROESGEN: Yes, they are. They are defending the school staff, because although the students were in there for about two hours and some people have said, well, look, you had two hours, why not let them go home? In fact, the school staff would allow some students whose parents would come to pick them up to go home.

But I've got to tell you, Paula, some of the parents told us today that they had just barely made it inside the school when they themselves were blown in the front door. It was very, very dangerous.

We saw the school busses here with all of the windows blown out. Behind me, in the school parking lot, there are still cars that were tossed around.

So school authorities really believe that the school did everything that should have been done. And the mayor here, whose own child goes to the school, says, listen, this school staff absolutely did everything right.


MAYOR KENNETH BOSWELL, ENTERPRISE, ALABAMA: Let me tell you, it could have been worse if they had not reacted and responded as quickly as they did. So my hat's off to them, and I'm glad my child went to school here and my life -- or my child's life was in their hands during that time.


ROESGEN: And again, Paula, many parents say the exact same thing, and the students as well. They know that there really wasn't anything more that could be done. They really felt that this was a secure building. Nobody expected the tornado to just hit it right in the middle of the school.

ZAHN: And I can't ever remember seeing debris like this recently. I grew up in the Midwest, I have witnessed a bunch of tornadoes, or at least their aftermath.

Give us a sense of what the community was doing today as it tried to get a grip on what it's going have to do to rebuild.

ROESGEN: Wow. Well, I have seen the school, I've walked around the perimeter, seen a little bit inside. The classrooms are just blown apart. There is debris everywhere.

One of the cars from the parking lot to my right was blown, I don't know, maybe 200 yards over into a residential area on the other side of this high school. In addition to the high school, Paula, between 100 and 150 homes here in Enterprise were either damaged or totally destroyed.

So tonight now we have got the National Guard, about 150 National Guard troops just securing the area, making sure there isn't any looting going on. Power companies have been out here all day trying to restore the power. We've provided our own for this. And again, many people are hoping to hear some good news from President Bush when he comes to tour this school tomorrow morning -- Paula.

ZAHN: We wish them all luck.

Susan Roesgen, thanks. Appreciate the update.

"LARRY KING LIVE" coming up in just a few minutes.

Larry, do you think this is the end of the Anna Nicole Smith story? Well, we've got to worry about who's the dad, too, right?

LARRY KING, HOST, "LARRY KING LIVE": It will never end.

ZAHN: And that's what you're talking about tonight, right?

KING: You're kidding? Yes.

ZAHN: I wasn't kidding.

KING: Tonight, what was it like inside Anna Nicole Smith's funeral today? A whole bunch of her close friends who were there will tell us, including the one who designed the dress she was buried in, her childhood friends from Texas, the nanny taking care of Anna Nicole's baby girl.

It's all at the top of the hour following Paula. Anna Nicole Smith, the legend lives on.

ZAHN: I'll tell you, I don't know how much of the funeral you watched. It was just totally captivating to see where all of the various men in her life sat in church, where her mother sat after she came in late.

It's just the strangest thing I've ever watched.

KING: I was flying back from New York to California, so I missed it, but we'll get caught up tonight.

ZAHN: Yes, in just about nine minutes from now you'll see it unfold live on your show or on tape on your show.

KING: Thank you.

ZAHN: Have a good show, Larry, and a good weekend. KING: You, too.

ZAHN: Thanks.

It's been a wild week on the stock market, and it ended with another nosedive.

How far did it fall this time? Stay with us. We'll have the details.



ZAHN: We're minutes away from "LARRY KING LIVE." He will have complete coverage of Anna Nicole Smith's funeral today in the Bahamas. He'll be talking with some of her close friends who were there to say good-bye.


ZAHN: And we close tonight with a prayer vigil going on at Bluffton University, as this community mourns the death of four of its students, baseball players who were on that bus that careened over an overpass today in Atlanta. They lost their lives, as well as the two drivers.

We're going to take a short break here.

"LARRY KING LIVE" continues on the other side.


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