Local News

Charges In Fatal Tractor-Trailer/School Bus Accident May Not Come Until Later In Week

Posted January 14, 2004

— The State Highway Patrol does not anticipate filing charges Tuesday in regards to a fatal school bus/tractor-trailer collision in Robeson County that claimed the life of a 5-year-old girl and injured dozens of others. Plus, WRAL has learned that a tractor-trailer driver involved in the accident has a criminal record that includes numerous traffic violations.

According to the state Highway Patrol, the collision happened on N.C. 71 north of Maxton near Bryant Circle at 7:04 a.m.

The Highway Patrol said a school bus was stopped and in the process of loading children when a tractor-trailer transporting chickens failed to stop and struck the school bus from behind.

According to

Robeson County Schools

, Sheila Hernandez was struck and killed as she was waiting to be helped onto the bus by her mother. The girl's mother, Maria Hernandez, 25, was also struck. She is being treated at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill.

"I saw her in the middle of the road. She was lying there and they had her covered up. Her mother was in the ditch from where the big truck hit her," said Erica Hernandez, the victim's aunt.

Hernandez said Maria attempted to shield her daughter.

"She walked her daughter to the bus and when her daughter got to the bus she turned around and looked and tried to get in front of her daughter so the truck wouldn't hit her," she said.

"You think about your own children getting on and off buses daily and how easily this could happen anywhere USA," State Trooper Joe Siles said.

The Highway Patrol said Gary K. Garnett, 38, of Hope Mills, was driving the tractor-trailer registered to Mountaire Farms Inc. of Selbyville, DE. Garnett stated to troopers that he was distracted because he was trying to locate his cell phone which he dropped on the floorboard of his tractor-trailer. He is being treated at Scotland Memorial Hospital in Laurinburg.

WRAL has learned that Garnett has a criminal record. Garnett has been cited with hit-and-run, improper passing, driving too fast for conditions, and driving with an expired operators license, along with other offenses. He received a speeding ticket in Cumberland County on Jan. 2 and was scheduled to appear in court on Feb. 18.

Troopers will present their findings to the Robeson County District Attorney either Wednesday or Thursday. The appropriate charges will be filed after consulting with the district attorney.

The bus was transporting children to

R.B. Dean Elementary School

.

Seven students were treated and released from Southeastern Regional Medical Center in Lumberton. Eight patients were admitted to Scotland Memorial in Laurinburg, of which four children were treated and released Tuesday afternoon. Four others -- two children and two adults -- were taken to area hospitals.

Officials said the force of the impact drove the bus 606 feet and across the county line. Authorities said the stopped bus was in Robeson County at the time of the collision and ended in Scotland County.

Federal investigators from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration assisted Robeson County troopers with their investigation.

Despite what many people may think, cell phones are not the biggest distraction for drivers. According to a study from the UNC Highway Safety Research Center and AAA, fiddling with the radio is

the top distraction

for drivers, followed by eating or drinking while driving. The third top distraction is putting on make-up or grooming. Cell phone use is ranked fourth.

The study also suggests 30 percent of crashes are caused by distracted drivers.

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