A third grader was killed and at least 45 people were injured when a charter bus carrying youth football players from Tennessee rolled off an interstate and overturned before sunrise Monday in central Arkansas, authorities said.
Arkansas State Police said the bus crashed along Interstate 30 near Benton, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) southwest of Little Rock. Police said most of the injured were children and that they were taken to hospitals in Little Rock and Benton.
The elementary-school age children from the Orange Mound Youth Association in southeast Memphis were returning home after playing in a tournament in the Dallas area over the weekend, according to Memphis TV station WMC. Orange Mound is a historically black neighborhood that unites around its highly competitive youth football program.
One of half a dozen adults on the bus, Damous Hailey, said the players from 10 Orange Mound Youth Association football teams had been playing in all-star squads. He told The Commercial Appeal newspaper that the bus swerved then flipped "about 15 or 20 times," before landing on its side at the foot of an embankment.
"When the bus started flipping, the kids were hollering, and we were trying to calm them down," he said in an interview from Saline Memorial Hospital, where he was treated for injuries to his right side and leg. "I was holding on, trying to make sure I didn't get thrown out."
Teams and coaches affiliated with the Orange Mound Youth Association have not returned phone calls and emails seeking comment.
At a news conference in Memphis Monday afternoon, Nickalous Manning, area superintendent of Aspire Public Schools, said a third grader from an Aspire charter school died in the crash. He did not reveal the child's name.
"When we talked to teammates here, you saw on their faces about what that young person meant to them, the impact that he had on the school community," Manning said. "This is going to be a loss that's going to be hard to heal from."
Students from five Achievement School District facilities in Memphis were also on the bus, according to district spokesman Bobby White.
Authorities haven't talked about the cause of the crash that happened under the cloak of darkness. The bus driver told state police that she lost control. The heavily damaged bus came to a rest after tumbling down a steep embankment next to the crook of a sharp bend on an off-ramp.
Dr. Todd Maxson, surgeon in chief and trauma medical director at Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock, said 22 of the 26 children aged 9 to 13 who were admitted to the facility were released by late Monday afternoon. He said the four remaining children were stable and expected to fully recover from their injuries.
Maxson said some of the children suffered injuries to the brain or other internal organs, while others suffered cuts and broken bones. He said two of the kids underwent emergency operations and were stable.
Saline Memorial Hospital admitted 13 injured adults and children, spokeswoman Rebecca Jones said. They were treated for cuts, bruises and some orthopedic injuries then released.
The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences received one adult patient who has not been discharged. A hospital spokeswoman said she couldn't provide any details, citing privacy laws.
It is unclear if seat belts were provided. Lawmakers in Tennessee tried but failed to introduce regulations in 2017 requiring seat belts in new school buses. The bus in Monday's crash was a charter bus.
Orange Mound was created after the Civil War by and for African-Americans, and black-owned businesses flourished there until desegregation enabled residents to live elsewhere. Chronic disinvestment brought widespread crime and poverty.
One resident, Carlos Morgan, told The Associated Press that the youth football program is vital in a neighborhood where youths can so easily be lured into drugs and crime.
"It helps keep kids out of trouble," said Morgan, who also played on traveling football squads in his youth.
It "gives kids opportunity and brings the community together," he said.
A speeding bus filled with school children crashed in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in November 2016, leaving six students dead. Prosecutors said the driver was on the phone at the time of the crash. He was convicted in March this year on six counts of criminally negligent homicide, 11 counts of reckless aggravated assault and seven counts of assault.
Associated Press reporters Adrian Sainz, Rebecca Reynolds Yonker and Hannah Grabenstein contributed to this report.