A class action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of the victims of a deadly bus crash that occurred last fall in Southwest Baltimore, alleging the driver was wrongly cleared to work despite previous crashes and health problems. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun)
A new report on a fatal 2016 school bus collision in Southwest Baltimore reveals details about the crash and the driver responsible for it — including that three years earlier, he became unconscious while driving students from a field trip to the zoo.
Bus driver Glenn Chappell had been involved in at least a dozen collisions or medical emergencies in the five years before the November 2016 crash that killed him and five other people, according to National Transportation Safety Board documents the agency recently made public. The documents include police reports and other accounts of many of the earlier incidents.
Chappell had a history of seizures that should have disqualified him from driving a school bus under a federally regulated driver vetting process, but he did not disclose it in routine medical examinations, officials have said. Police believe he was having a seizure when his bus crashed into a Ford Mustang, swerved into oncoming traffic and struck the side of a Maryland Transit Administration bus.
NTSB investigators found that in October 2013, he "became 'Unresponsive/ Unconscious' while returning children from a zoo field trip," the report said, an incident that had not previously been made public. An account of that incident was not included in Baltimore City Public Schools' "crash file" for Chappell, which the NTSB included in the newly released documents.
That "crash file" does include reports detailing incidents that had already come to light since the fatal crash, including one in which a student was injured when Chappell blacked out and crashed into several poles and a parked car at Clifton Avenue and Denison Street in West Baltimore in October 2011.
An aide who was on the bus during that incident told police that at first, she thought Chappell just didn't know where he was going because he was new to the route, but then she realized he had lost control of the vehicle.
"After he hit the first pole I got up to protect the child by holding him," she said, according to a police report included among the documents. After the bus came to a rest, she asked Chappell what happened. She said he mumbled words and she could "barely understand what he was saying."
A month earlier, a parent of a student at Gwynns Falls Elementary told school officials the child did not get home until 6:20 p.m. and told her parents that her bus had been involved in an accident. Chappell and an aide "did not even know my child was on the bus until my wife called my daughter on her cellphone," the parent wrote in an email to city school officials.
An audit released in March by Missouri-based firm School Bus Consultants said city schools officials should have connected the dots on the incidents to prevent Chappell from getting behind the wheel, citing "a systemic absence of leadership over an extended period of time." Chappell was employed by a variety of bus companies that work with the city to transport students to and from field trips and to take students with disabilities to and from school.
When that audit was released, city schools officials said they had already enacted changes to address shortcomings identified in the audit.
"While City Schools has always had a process for monitoring driver certification, immediately after the November 2016 accident, the district reviewed all protocols and implemented additional monitoring steps to ensure the fitness to drive of all drivers, including both those directly employed and those employed by contracted transportation providers," schools officials said in a statement in March.
On Friday, school system officials said they are reviewing the NTSB documents and will not comment on specific details within them while lawsuits that have been filed related to the crash are pending. They said the school district is taking "all steps possible to ensure the safety of our students, staff, and those with whom our buses and taxis share the road."
The NTSB documents also provide more details about the deadly November 2016 crash, including that one student was supposed to get on the bus minutes before the fatal crash but did not show up that day. The school bus Chappell was driving struck the Ford Mustang and the MTA bus, killing the drivers of both buses and four passengers on the MTA bus. Only an aide was on board the school bus with Chappell.
That aide told investigators she was sitting behind Chappell and didn't realize anything was wrong with him at first. When the bus hit the Mustang, she said it felt like a bump in the road.
Before she could get up to see what was happening, the vehicle crashed into the MTA bus. And when she got up to see his face, she could see he was dead. "And I just screamed," she told investigators.
"I start screaming and crying because I know I cannot get him," she said in an interview with investigators. "I run to the back — I run out the back of the bus. I fall out the bus. I get up. I just start screaming, help, help, help."
Passengers on the MTA bus described a bewildering and terrifying scene. One woman who said her spine was fractured in the crash told investigators she awoke in the middle of a pile of debris with another passenger and the transit bus driver. Another passenger said the bus was filled with smoke.
"I started looking around like, oh, the bus was in an accident," she said. "And then people started yelling, help me, help me, I can't feel my legs."