GRAY SUMMIT, Mo. —National Transportation Safety Board investigators examining the Missouri crash that killed a 15-year-old school bus passenger and the teen driver of a pickup are hopeful they'll learn something to make school buses and road work zones safer, an NTSB official said Friday.
NTSB vice chairman Christopher Hart said "people, vehicles and the environment" at the crash scene will be evaluated by the team of 14 investigators, though a final report could take up to 18 months.
The accident happened Thursday on I-44, about 40 miles from St. Louis. A semi cab slowed for road construction and was struck by a pickup. Two buses carrying high school band students to Six Flags St. Louis from central Missouri then slammed into that wreck.
The accident killed 15-year-old Jessica Brinker of St. James, seated in the back seat of the first bus; and the pickup driver, 19-year-old Daniel Schatz of Sullivan.
Fifty-four students were treated for mostly minor injuries, according to a Missouri State Highway Patrol report. Two girls remained hospitalized Friday, one in serious condition. Details of the other girl's condition were not released. Both bus drivers and the semi cab driver also were hurt.
In its initial report, the patrol said the 75-year-old driver of the first bus was inattentive, and the 38-year-old driver of the second was "following too closely." Franklin County prosecutor Bob Parks said he won't decide on charges until he gets the final patrol report, which could take up to six weeks.
Among other issues, the NTSB will examine whether seat belts on the bus could have helped. Hart said investigators also will consider the possible benefits of accident-avoidance technology that would warn drivers about impending slowdowns and perhaps even automatically apply brakes.
Summer is a busy time for road construction, and wrecks are common in work zones.
Statistics from the Federal Highway Administration showed 720 people died in highway work zones across the country in 2008, including 18 in Missouri.
"In a work zone, the road is going to change," said Brad Sant, a vice president for the trade group that represents road construction workers, the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. "If drivers are not paying attention, or if they're frustrated or weaving around barrels, accidents are going to happen."
Missouri does not require that its school buses have seat belts; only a handful of states do. The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services advocates shoulder harness belts for all school buses, though executive director Bob Riley said buses are by far the safest way to transport children.
He cited a 2002 study showing that about 800 children and teenagers die every year on their way to or from school, but only 6-8 typically die on school buses. The others are in private cars or die while walking or biking.
Riley said it would cost about an extra $8,000 to $10,000 per bus to have seat belts, and old buses cannot be retrofitted because of seat design. School buses are built with tall, padded seat backs so that if a student is knocked forward, the injury risk is fairly minimal, he said.
"The weakness is in side or rollover collisions," Riley said.
It isn't yet clear if a belt would have saved Brinker, who was sitting near where the second bus hit hers, the Highway Patrol said. The accident site was a horrific scene, with Schatz's mangled pickup barely recognizable in the tangled wreckage. The first of the buses vaulted over the pickup, crushing it, and landed atop the semi cab, the bus coming to a rest at a 45-degree angle, its front some 20 feet in the air.
Brinker's family released a statement saying the high school sophomore, an honor student and member of the color guard as well as the band, was voted "friendliest girl" by her classmates.
Asked what they loved about her, friends said she always was smiling and found something to laugh about, even if a situation made her mad, the statement said.
"More than grieving her death, Jessica would love if everyone celebrated her life here on earth as well as in heaven," the statement said.
Schatz was a former all-state high school quarterback who made the University of Missouri team as a walk-on in 2009. He left Missouri and hoped to play alongside his older brother at Westminster College this fall, said his father, Dave Schatz, who won the Republican primary for a Missouri House seat Tuesday.
Daniel Schatz was driving to his family's contracting business when the accident occurred. Dave Schatz described his son as "a great kid."