CHATSWORTH — Dozens of fifth-graders filed through the Children’s Memorial Garden at Northwest Elementary School and placed tiny bouquets of yellow and red flowers all around June Sluder.
None of them were old enough to remember the fallen classmates they were honoring, but some felt the solemnity of the occasion enough to begin weeping nonetheless.
Sunday marks 10 years since three students from the school were killed in a tragic school bus-train collision at about 6:30 a.m. on Liberty Church Road. Killed on impact were Sluder’s son, Daniel Lee Pack, 9, and Kayla Cheyann Silvers, 6. Amber Dawne Pritchett, 9, died March 29, 2000 after hospitalization.
Four other children were injured, but survived. They were Brittany Gaddis, 8; Jordan Manis, 6; Kevin J. Sherrill, 8; and Kayli Cloer, 5. Kayli’s mother, Rhonda Cloer, was driving the bus, and received minor injuries. Investigators determined she was listening to music and never stopped at the crossing.
The Children’s Memorial Garden was built with money from donations in memory of the children who died in the crash as well as a few other children who died from unrelated illnesses or accidents while enrolled at the school.
“I thank the school for being here and doing what they do,” Sluder said. “That garden is a very important place at this time.”
Sluder was the only family member who attended the ceremony, and she was surrounded by about 20 teachers and staff members who gathered and wept with her. Principal C.L. Dunn, who has been at the school for 16 years, said he tried to reach all the family members who had children in the crash. There were some he couldn’t reach, and others for whom the ceremony would have been too painful.
“If you know any or see any of the families of the other kids, just let them know that we still care about them,” Dunn concluded, his voice breaking with grief.
Coming Sunday: The Daily Citizen remembers the 10th anniversary of the Liberty Church Road school bus collision with a train that took the lives of three Murray County elementary students. In a package of stories we talk to family members of the kids who were on the bus and look at what safety changes have been made in the decade since.