Grief and praying after Tennessee school bus tragedy

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — When police chaplain and Anthony Baker arrived at the hospital hours after an elementary school bus accident killed five and injured 32 others, he picked up crayons and joined distraught children coloring scenes on paper.

A school bus driver himself for the past 16 years, Baker was uniquely positioned to minister to those awaiting word on their loved ones at the T.C. Thompson campus of Erlanger Children’s Hospital Nov. 21 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

“Sometimes when the world is falling apart, coloring makes you think we can put things together and make it look good,” Baker told a sixth grade boy. “[The student] nodded his head, and so we sat down there and started coloring.”

Anthony Baker engaged grieving children in artwork at Erlanger Children's Hospital after a bus accident killed five children and injured 32 others in Chattanooga, Tenn. Photo by Anthony Baker
Anthony Baker engaged grieving children in artwork at Erlanger Children’s Hospital after a bus accident killed five children and injured 32 others in Chattanooga, Tenn. Photo by Anthony Baker

Coloring distracted the children who were worried after a bus carrying their friends from Woodmore Elementary School veered off a residential road, clipped a mailbox and utility pole, landed on its side and was impaled through its center by a tree around 3:30 p.m. Five children died at the scene — including a kindergartener, a first grader and three fourth graders. Of the 32 taken to area hospitals, 12 were hospitalized — six in intensive care — and 20 were treated and released.

Baker, former pastor of Riverside Baptist Church in Chattanooga, is one of many leaders ministering to the tearful community after the one-vehicle accident, according to local sources.

Ternae Jordan, pastor of Mt. Canaan Baptist Church, said one of his members, whom he identified as Deborah, lost a fourth-grade grandchild in the accident, and other members lost relatives. He spent much of the night ministering to those grieving at the hospital, and to students and teachers at school this morning.

“I didn’t realize that Deborah was involved until the latter part of the night because we were ministering to so many families,” said. “It was a horrific scene at the hospital with all of the parents and families being told that their child did not survive. Last night was probably one of the worst scenes that you could ever expect, watching the pain and the hurt of family members.”

He described Woodmore as a close-knit community, and said area pastors responded in great numbers after the tragedy.

“The body of Christ really showed up last night. There were pastors and prayer teams from throughout the community that were there serving and showing the love of Christ,” Jordan said. “That’s one of the most memorable things about last night.”

Baker talked about the mortality of life and the importance of having a personal relationship with Jesus before being faced with tragedy.

“No matter how long you live, you never live long enough. These children that died at 7 or 8 years old, they didn’t live long enough. But when you’re 90 and you die, somebody’s always wishing you’d lived a little longer,” Baker said. “You never live long enough, and so you have to take advantage of whatever you’re given by God, and cherish it no matter how long you’re given. Life is precious and you just cannot take it for granted, even in the safest of conditions.”

Baker was among several chaplains who prayed with hospital employees and those grieving in waiting rooms, many of whom had not yet learned of their children’s fate. Many of the families were hopeless, angry and distraught, he said.

“We want them to understand [salvation] before things like this happen,” he said. “I want them to have faith in Christ. I want them to know that even though this life is over, they [can] have hope of another [in Christ].”

Baker took the tragedy personally, he said.

“While at the same time that I’m trying to comfort people, I’m as a bus driver trying to reassure people that … school buses are safe and the bus drivers do care,” he said. “I care about my children. I would die for my kids. When I’m on my bus, I don’t care who those kids are; they’re my children. I take it very personally what happens to those kids.”

Driving his bus this morning, the first thing on his mind was safety, said Baker. He’s in charge of 60–70 children on his normal routes, including elementary and high school students.

Chattanooga police charged 24-year-old Johnthony Walker, employed by Durham School Services and the driver of the wrecked bus, with five counts of vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and reckless driving. The names of the victims had not been released.

— by Diana Chandler | BP


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