COLUMBUS, Ohio (WJW) — The National Transportation Safety Board has launched its investigation into a charter bus crash that killed three Tusky Valley high school students and three others Tuesday morning on Interstate 70.

A motor coach carrying 57 people, including students from Tuscarawas Valley Schools, was rear-ended by a semi-truck on Interstate 70 in Etna, Licking County, officials said.

NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy, in a Wednesday afternoon update on the safety oversight board’s inquiry, said the full investigation could take 12 to 18 months, though the board expects to issue preliminary findings in the next two to three weeks.

Over the next week, the board’s investigators are expected to collect “perishable evidence” from the scene, document the crash site, examine the inspection histories of the vehicles involved and consider how long the motor carriers’ drivers were in service before the Tuesday morning crash.

Investigators have recovered electronic data recorders — often called “black boxes” — from some of the vehicles, but they have not yet been examined, Homendy said. They’ve also collected video footage from cameras mounted to vehicles that were nearby but not involved in the collision as well as from external cameras gathered by state troopers.

Over the next several months, the board expects to bring in experts focusing on myriad factors: the roadway’s design and its condition that day; traffic volumes and prior accidents in the area; “human performance” factors like impairment or fatigue; the vehicles’ past inspections and crashworthiness; and the commercial carriers’ policies and compliance with state and federal regulations.

Investigators are taking an analytical approach to the tragedy, Homendy said — but the “human” aspect can’t be removed from that.

“I’m a mom and I have a 15-year-old daughter. And so when I look at the vehicles or I look at the roadway conditions … you can’t not think about the children that were involved, their families, the concern the parents at home may have had,” she said. “This was really tragic. This was a very serious crash. You can’t separate these two. That’s what makes us so passionate about our job. That’s why we want to determine how it happened.”

What we know about the vehicles

Three other vehicles were involved in the crash, including two SUVs and another commercial vehicle, Homendy said Wednesday.

The semi-truck that rear-ended the motor coach then caught fire belonged to a Hebron company and was driven by a 60-year-old Zanesville man, according to information released Wednesday afternoon by the Ohio State Highway Patrol. The charter bus belonged to a Millersburg-based charter bus service and was driven by a 65-year-old Hartville man.

There “were no seatbelts” on the motor coach, except for at the driver’s seat, Homendy said Wednesday.

Other vehicles involved included a commercial vehicle belonging to a Wapakoneta company, driven by a 37-year-old Wapakoneta man, and a passenger vehicle driven by a 75-year-old man from Heath.

All of the drivers were injured, according to the patrol.

They were all licensed at the time of the crash, said NTSB investigator Kenny Bragg.

‘A day of mourning’

Gov. Mike DeWine, speaking to reporters on Wednesday, declined to speculate on the cause of the crash, but stressed that ongoing investigations by the Ohio State Highway Patrol and the federal safety overseers would be thorough.

During an anniversary celebration dedicated to the Ohio State Highway Patrol on Wednesday afternoon, the governor led a moment of silence and silent prayer “for the Tusky Valley schools students, parents, teachers, administrators, family members and, really, for the whole community of the Tusky Valley Schools.”

“This is a tight-knit community. I’m sure there’s no one in this community that is not feeling this pain,” he said.

Among the students killed were senior John W. Mosley, 18, of Mineral City; senior Jeffery “JD” Worrell, 18, of Bolivar; and sophomore Katelyn Owens, 15, also of Mineral City. Three others killed were in a separate vehicle: high school teacher Dave Kennat, 56, of Navarre; parent/chaperone Kristy Gaynor, 39, of Zoar; and parent/chaperone Shannon Wigfield, 45, of Bolivar.

“This continues to be a day of mourning,” DeWine told reporters.

Another 18 students were treated and released from a hospital. Two others were in serious but non-life-threatening condition on Tuesday night.

To the families whose loved ones were killed in the crash and survivors, Homendy said: “I can’t imagine what you’ve gone through since this crash and what challenges lie ahead for you. Just know that the NTSB will be thinking of you and working diligently on this investigation and even after this investigation to implement recommendations to prevent it from occurring again.

“We’ll be thinking of you in the days and months ahead. Our hearts go out to you.”

A parallel state investigation

Col. Charles Jones, superintendent of the state patrol, said there’s currently no timeline for state troopers to complete their investigation into what caused the crash.

“It’s going to take time. We want to make sure we do a thorough and comprehensive investigation,” he said.

DeWine said though state troopers specialize in crash reconstruction, Tuesday’s crash “will not be easy.” He expects the NTSB’s parallel investigation will “complement” the patrol’s.

“There’s a lot of things to learn. I know there will be many questions in the days ahead,” DeWine said. “The public is gonna wanna know. Policymakers will want to know all kinds of things.

“This was a horrendous accident. I’m not gonna speculate about anything at this point until we really get a complete report from the highway patrol and the NTSB.”

‘Are we doing enough for safety?’

The Tuesday motor coach crash was preceded by another crash that happened about an hour prior, farther west on I-70, Homendy said.

“We’ll look at how traffic was queued and we’ll look at measures for directing traffic,” which is standard practice in an NTSB investigation, Homendy said.

Traffic along the stretch of I-70 where the crash occurred has become much busier in recent years, DeWine said.

“This is the first thought I had going over there. … Once you shut the highway down for two minutes, trucks are everywhere,” he said. “I flew over the general area of Central Ohio three months ago, to look at the Intel site, to look at the construction. Candidly, the thing that struck me … when you look down from that helicopter, all you saw was trucks.”

There have been 1,800 crashes along I-70 in Licking County since Jan. 1, 2018, according to Ohio State Highway Patrol crash data, eight of which were fatal (not including the Tuesday crash):

  • 300 crashes in 2018
  • 298 crashes in 2019
  • 265 crashes in 2020
  • 344 crashes in 2021
  • 341 crashes in 2022
  • 252 crashes so far in 2023

Nearly 500 of the total crashes involved commercial vehicles, patrol data shows.

DeWine said he has discussed with Ohio Department of Transportation Director Jack Marchbanks the possibility of splitting off traffic lanes to better accommodate commercial trucks.

“If you look at the growth in Central Ohio, the question that immediately comes is: ‘Are there enough lanes? Are we doing enough for safety?'” he said. “We have set aside, as you know, a significant amount of money to work on intersections and other things.

“The volume of traffic in Central Ohio is massive, and it’s going to grow and we have to stay on top of that.”

Forty-three-thousand people die on American roadways each year, Homendy said Wednesday. Though the NTSB issues safety recommendations intended to save lives and given organizations “a roadmap” for their implementation, they’re often ignored, she said.

“We have a public health crisis on our roads. We need all hands on deck here. We need to take action to save lives,” she said.