Bluffton University bus crash
|Bluffton University bus accident|
Bluffton University Charter Bus Accident in Atlanta, Georgia on March 2, 2007
|Date||05:38, March 2, 2007|
|Bus||Van Hool T2145 luxury touring coach|
A chartered motorcoach was carrying 33 members of the Bluffton University baseball team from Bluffton, Ohio on their way to a tournament game during spring break in Sarasota, Florida. The group planned to travel without an overnight stop on the approximately 900-mile, 18-hour trip. The trip went without incident from Bluffton south to a motel in Adairsville, Georgia, located 54 miles north of Atlanta, which was near the half-way point. There, a relief driver, who had been positioned earlier in order to have the required sleep period, took over and began operating the second half of the trip to Florida.
About 5:38 am EST, operating the motorcoach southbound in a left-hand HOV lane of I-75 in the Atlanta metropolitan area, the driver apparently mistakenly entered a left HOV-only exit ramp from the HOV lane, which led upward to a wide elevated road and a T-junction marked by a stop sign. The bus was traveling at highway speed, when it reached the top of the ramp and the stop sign. As the driver of the motorcoach failed to successfully stop or turn, and lost control, the bus slid sideways into a concrete bridge wall and chain-link security fence and fell 19 feet, landing on its left side across the Interstate highway below.
Within minutes, multiple emergency services from the Atlanta area were on the scene. The 29 passengers who originally survived the crash were taken to Atlanta-area hospitals. Seven motorcoach occupants were killed: the driver, his wife, and five passengers. Seven other passengers received serious injuries, and 21 passengers received minor injuries.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) dispatched a team to the scene and began an investigation. Local and state police and officials of the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) also investigated. In its final report, the NTSB determined that the probable cause was "the motorcoach driver's mistaking the HOV-only left exit ramp to Northside Drive for the southbound Interstate 75 HOV through lane." A contributing factor to the crash was "failure of the Georgia Department of Transportation to install adequate traffic control devices to identify the separation and divergence of the Northside Drive HOV-only left exit ramp from the southbound Interstate 75 HOV through lane." The NTSB further determined that contributing to the severity of the crash was "the motorcoach's lack of an adequate occupant protection system."
- 1 Details
- 2 Fatalities
- 3 Injuries
- 4 Cause and investigation
- 5 Reactions
- 6 9-1-1 call to Atlanta emergency services
- 7 See also
- 8 External links
- 9 References
Bluffton University is located in Bluffton, Ohio, about 50 miles or 80 km south of Toledo, Ohio. The university is a Christian liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. It was founded in 1899 as Central Mennonite College and became Bluffton College in 1913. The name Bluffton University was adopted later on in 2004.
Executive Coach charter bus
Executive Coach Luxury Travel, Inc. was the company which was operating the chartered motorcoach type bus. The company is based in Ottawa, Ohio, which is located about 10 miles north of Bluffton, Ohio.
The bus was a 2000 Van Hool T2145 57-passenger motorcoach. (In U.S. terminology, a motorcoach is a type of intercity bus designed and equipped for long-distance travel). The bus had passed a safety inspection by the Ohio Highway Patrol on February 23, just seven days before the crash.
Jerome "Jerry" Niemeyer and his wife, Jean Niemeyer, were residents of the small town of Columbus Grove in Putnam County, Ohio only a few minutes' drive away from Bluffton. Jerry had been driving buses for years for several school events and trips, specifically for Executive Coach Luxury Travel Inc. He had transported the team on the same route a year before. Shortly before the team's 2007 trip to Florida, Jean quit her job at the local McDonald's in Ottawa, Ohio. Residents of these small towns said that the couple would try to be together whenever they had the chance. They would give of themselves in their jobs and careers according to several residents and co-workers.
The Niemeyers checked into a Comfort Inn at Adairsville just after 7:30 pm the evening before the crash. From all indications, Jerry Niemeyer had had the rest period required by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Standards before taking over the motorcoach. Blood and urine samples from his body would later show the presence of ibuprofen, therapeutic levels of the antidepressant Sertraline and the anti-hypertensive drug Atenolol, and conclude that he had no alcohol in his system.
Jerry Niemeyer took over as the driver earlier in the morning at a motel in Adairsville when it was time for a driver switch. Shortly before this, he and his wife, Jean Niemeyer, checked out of their hotel at around 3 am and had placed an order from the local pizza parlor.
About an hour later, they were in Atlanta, heading south on Interstate 75 in the high-occupancy vehicle lane. The driver, Jerome Niemeyer, apparently mistaken, drove left onto an exit ramp for Northside Drive (U.S. 41). The ramp, constructed in 1996, rose upward to a wide elevated road and a T-junction marked by a stop sign.
Without braking, the bus swerved rightward across the road, attempting to go southbound on Northside Drive. Unable to make the turn, it hit the low barrier wall, which caused the back end of the bus to swing around to the right, pointing it due northbound. The momentum of this swing caused the entire right side of the bus to crash into and then over the low wall and through the guard rail on top of it. Flipping over 270° (¾-rotation), it dropped to the freeway below, landing on its left side and hitting a pickup truck. The pickup's driver, who rapidly accelerated when he saw the bus plunging, was not hurt. 
The majority of the injured baseball players were transported to Grady Memorial Hospital, the largest hospital in Atlanta with a level 1 trauma center. An entire wing was cleared out for the baseball players and their families. Several players were also treated at Atlanta Medical Center, a Level 2 trauma center. The team coach was treated at Piedmont Hospital.
Seven fatalities overall were recorded. One baseball player, Tim Berta, 22, of Ida, Michigan was in critical condition as of April 13. Of the 35 people on the bus, the following individuals were killed as a result of the crash.
|People who died in the Bluffton University Bus Craah|
|Zachary Arend||Freshman||18||Oakwood, Ohio||19||Pitcher||March 9, 2007 (from injuries)|
|David Betts||Sophomore||20||Bryan, Ohio||4||Second-Baseman||March 2, 2007|
|Scott Harmon||Freshman||19||Elida, Ohio||17||Third-Baseman||March 2, 2007|
|Cody Holp||Freshman||19||Arcanum, Ohio||18||Pitcher||March 2, 2007|
|Jean Niemeyer||61||Columbus Grove, Ohio||Bus Driver's wife||March 2, 2007|
|Jerome Niemeyer||65||Columbus Grove, Ohio||Bus Driver||March 2, 2007|
|Tyler Williams||Sophomore||19||Lima, Ohio||3||Outfielder||March 2, 2007|
The 29 passengers that originally survived the crash were taken to Atlanta-area hospitals, including Grady, Atlanta Medical Center, and Piedmont Hospital. Baseball coach James Grandey, 29, and four players were reported in serious or critical condition, one of whom, Zachery Arend, later died. As of March 15, 2007, James Grandey was reported in good condition and released. Many of the others were treated and released.
Cause and investigation
Allegedly poor design of the exit itself soon became the primary source of blame. The Atlanta Police Department and National Transportation Safety Board investigated. Meanwhile, preliminary tests ruled out the possibility of a mechanical failure.
National Transportation Safety Board report
A preliminary report was issued about a week after the crash, according to the NTSB chairman. A final report was released in July 2008. Regarding cause, the NTSB stated:
"The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this crash was the motorcoach driver’s mistaking the HOV-only left exit ramp to Northside Drive for the southbound Interstate 75 HOV through lane. Contributing to the crash driver’s route mistake was the failure of the Georgia Department of Transportation to install adequate traffic control devices to identify the separation and divergence of the Northside Drive HOV-only left exit ramp from the southbound Interstate 75 HOV through lane. Contributing to the severity of the crash was the motorcoach’s lack of an adequate occupant protection system."
"Major safety issues identified in this crash include inadequate HOV traffic control devices, inadequate motor carrier driver oversight, lack of event data recorders on motorcoaches, and lack of motorcoach occupant protection. As a result of its investigation, the Safety Board makes recommendations to the Federal Highway Administration and to the Georgia Department of Transportation. The Safety Board also reiterates four recommendations to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration."
The Executive Summary and a PDF file copy of the entire NTSB report are available at this link: 
I-75 and HOV lane in Atlanta
Of particular interest in the investigation is the design of the exit itself. Several factors appear to have played a possible role:
- The exit is on the left-hand side of the highway and not the right-hand side;
- Inadequate advance notice may have been given of this atypical setup;
- The HOV exit is signed differently than standard exits;
- The arrow on the exit sign may mislead drivers where the HOV lane continues;
- The exit ramp has poor signage.
The Georgia Department of Transportation made changes to all seven of the left-hand lane HOV interchanges in Atlanta, starting March 14, 2007. The final NTSB report urged further changes than the ones already made.
Doctors from Grady Memorial Hospital began phoning congressmen from Ohio and Georgia soon after the crash urging them to put seat belts on Charter Buses to avoid this situation in the near future. For a list of changes see Changes ordered for bus crash HOV ramp.
In December 2009, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced a new edition of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, incorporating changes recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board. One of the changes, in response to the inadequate marking of an HOV lane exit at Northside Drive in Atlanta, is the addition of different lane markings for lanes not continuing beyond an intersection or interchange to give drivers more warning that they need to switch lanes if they don’t intend to turn.
A bill introduced would require safety belts and better protection like anti-ejection windows in buses like the one used.
The funeral for David Betts took place at Bryan High School in Bryan, Ohio on March 9, 2007. Scott Harmon was eulogized on March 7, 2007, at Elida High School in Elida, Ohio, just west of Bluffton, Ohio. A service for Tyler Williams was held on March 8, 2007, at Phillipian Missionary Baptist Church in Lima, Ohio.
Cody Holp was laid to rest in Lewisburg, Ohio where funeral services took place at Lewisburg United Methodist Church on March 8, 2007. A mass of Christian burial took place March 16, 2007, for Zachary Arend at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Paulding, Ohio at 10 am
Hundreds of people packed Founders Hall on the Bluffton University campus for the memorial service on March 12, 2007, and an overflow audience listened outside as the student body mourned together for the first time. The service was attended by Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, numerous other public officials, college and university representatives, Mennonite Church officials, AirTran employees, other athletes from colleges in the same conference, and fire and rescue personnel.
- Student, Sherrolyn Young, who attended Bluffton University in Ohio released this statement to the press:
|“||We're all friends, if you were not friends with them, you were friends with someone who was friends with them.||”|
|“||They gave of self, in their jobs, in their careers. They both were very much in the service business, whether it be Jerry when he was driving his bus or when Jean was helping customers at the bank or helping people at McDonald’s.||”|
- Executive Coach Luxury Travel, Inc. out of Ottawa, Ohio posted this statement on their website shortly after the crash:
|“||We at Executive Coach Luxury Travel Inc. are deeply saddened by this tragedy. We are continuing to cooperate with the officials investigating the accident in Atlanta, Ga.
Our thoughts and prayers are with all of the victims and their families.
|“||It's definitely awakened a lot of people. We may be young, we're not invincible, any one of us could be taken at any time, so it just makes us appreciate all the more the time that we do have with our loved ones and friends.||”|
- Donald Pannabecker, vice president and dean of academic affairs emritus, told The Lima News this:
|“||We have learned that small-town values extend beyond this small village in Ohio. Bluffton, Ohio, and Atlanta, Ga., have more in common than we might have thought.||”|
- Kenneth L. Shigley, president of the State Bar of Georgia and local counsel in Atlanta for ten of the team members, said,
|“||This tragedy reminds us once again that most of our worst mistakes are mathematical, in that we miscalculate the brevity of life and the length of eternity.||”|
Several lawsuits were filed by the families of deceased players and by those injured in the crash in the State Court of Fulton County, Georgia. Judge Susan Forsling entered case management orders that included a provision for mediation of all claims in Ohio.
Wrongful death and personal injury claims arising from this crash were settled in phases for a total of $25 million, which was allocated among all claimants by agreement through a joint prosecution group.
First, the insurer for Executive Coach paid its policy limits of $5 million required under the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations.
Second, the State of Georgia paid $3 million to the crash victim due to claims of negligent design of the ramp, intersection and signage. The Georgia State Tort Claims Act limits the liability of state governmental entities to a maximum of $1 million per person and $3 million per occurrence, no matter how many were hurt.
Third, after the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled that the university's liability insurance policies were applicable to the bus driver because the coach retained control over the driver, that added a total of $21 million coverage to the pool. At that point, the insurance companies holding the first two layers of the university's insurance coverage tendered their respective policy limits, of $1 million and $5 million, in the spring of 2011.
Finally, on July 29, 2011, in a mediation in Columbus, Ohio, the last insurer for Bluffton University, with limits of $15 million, agreed to pay an additional $11 million, to be allocated among claimants according to their agreement. The mediator was Art Glaser from Atlanta. Over two dozen lawyers from Atlanta and Ohio were involved. 
9-1-1 call to Atlanta emergency services
- Operator: Atlanta 911 Emergency.
- Caller: Yes. We've just been in a bus accident. A bunch of students. I don't know where we're at.
- Operator: I need a location.
- Caller: Where we at, sir?
- Voice in background: You're on 75 South.
- Caller: 75 South.
- Voice in background: I got somebody coming.
- Caller: We've got somebody coming, okay?
- "Executive Coach Luxury Travel Inc. – We Grieve". Retrieved March 13, 2007.
- Slevin, Peter; Chatman, Angela (March 3, 2007). "The Washington Post – Six killed as College Athletes' Bus Crashes". Retrieved March 10, 2007.
- "The Atlanta Journal Constitution – Team in fatal crash was asleep". Retrieved April 18, 2007.
- "WLIO Lima, Ohio – First day back for many grieving Bluffton students". Retrieved March 13, 2007.
- "LimaOhio.com – Campus service honors lives lost, offers hope for mourners". Retrieved March 13, 2007.
- "ESPN – Bluffton plays first baseball game since fatal crash". Retrieved April 6, 2007.
- "Columbus Dispatch – Bluffton in shock after bus crash in Atlanta kills 4 students, 2 other Ohioans". Retrieved March 9, 2007.
- "Atlanta Journal-Constitution – Biographies of the victims". Retrieved March 9, 2007.
- "CNN – Six killed as bus pledges off overpass". Archived from the original on March 5, 2007. Retrieved March 9, 2007.
- "FOX – Baseball player dies a week after Georgia bus crash kills 6 others". Fox News. March 9, 2007. Retrieved March 9, 2007.
- Seewer, John (March 6, 2007). "Baseball players who survived of bus wreck in Georgia return to Ohio in mourning". USA Today. Retrieved April 1, 2007.
- "Fatal Atlanta Bus Accident Not Caused By Mechanical Failures". Retrieved March 13, 2007.
- "Bus wreck site gets a hard look". Retrieved April 1, 2007.
- "CNN – Georgia changing exits like one where bus crashed". Archived from the original on March 14, 2007. Retrieved March 13, 2007.
- http://www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2009/12/16/New-safety-standard-manual-released/UPI-10951260990367/; http://atlantainjurylawblog.com/bus-accidents/atlanta-bus-crash-tragedy-leading-to-new-standards-for-road-signs-and-bus-safety.html
- "LimaOhio.com – Remembered for service". Retrieved March 11, 2007.
- "WTOL Toledo – Saying goodbye to David Betts". Retrieved March 11, 2007.
- "11Alive Atlanta – Funeral Arrangements for Players". Retrieved March 11, 2007.
- "bluffton.edu – Zachary Arend Obituary". Retrieved March 14, 2007.
- "WTOL Toledo – Thousands pack memorial service for bus crash victims". Retrieved March 13, 2007.
- "WTOL Toledo – Students at Bluffton University Return to Class After Tragedy". Retrieved March 13, 2007.
- http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/3/2009/2009-Ohio-5910.pdf; http://www.insurancejournal.com/magazines/mag-features/2011/01/10/185694.htm; http://www.georgiatruckaccidentattorneyblog.com/2011/05/ohio_supreme_court_rules_that_1.html
- "11Alive Atlanta – Bus Crash Police Audio Released". Retrieved March 10, 2007.