16 Lincoln students hurt as car hits bus

Students all treated and released; group of 30 returning from pageant in Atlanta expected back on campus today

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Some college students involved in a crash on Interstate 75 at East Ridge on Sunday credited their bus driver’s quick thinking for minimizing the impact.

“Our bus driver reacted really quickly because we almost hit the cement wall [that divides the northbound and southbound lanes],” one student said. All the students from Jefferson City’s Lincoln University declined to give their names after an adviser told them not to.

The driver, Barry Dunnigan, owner and operator of USA Tours, attributed his speedy reaction to his time in the military.

“I’ve got a little bit more extensive driving training than the average bus driver,” he said. “Luckily, I was able to keep the bus stable because I thought we were going to tilt over.”

About 30 students were returning from the Miss Historically Black Colleges and Universities Pageant in Atlanta, where one had placed second.

They were near the northbound welcome center at East Ridge, Tenn., when police said Esdras Lopez Chavez, 23, lost control of his Ford Mustang and hit the bus in the right front corner.

The impact knocked the bus over one lane and nearly into the concrete median wall, students said.

Initially, 16 students were taken to four Chattanooga area hospitals, where all were treated and released.

“The good thing about this: no one was seriously hurt,” Dunnigan said.

Chavez was charged with driving without a license, having no insurance and failing to maintain his lane, said Erik Hopkins, a spokesman for East Ridge police.

The high number of potential injuries in the crash triggered a mass casualty response among the hospitals. Six ambulances responded and Medcom, a regional medical communications center, coordinated the availability of patient beds, police said.

Dunnigan said another bus was coming so the students would be back in Jefferson City in time for school today. Dunnigan said he’ll take the damaged but driveable bus home today.

And while the students are riding through the night, Dunnigan, coincidentally a Chattanooga native and 1979 graduate of the former Kirkman Technical High School, said he’d be enjoying some of his mom’s chicken and dressing.

“It is a coincidence — a bad coincidence — for [the crash] to happen, but a good coincidence that my mom was cooking a Sunday dinner,” he said.

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