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CNN: SPECIAL INVESTIGATIONS UNIT
Encore Presentation: Fatal Journey
Aired March 18, 2007 - 14:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We were all sleeping for the most part.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I actually heard the tires squeal and him trying to get it back under control. I felt the bus tumble over.
UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANNOUNCER: There is -- actually gone over the bridge and on to the interstate.
ANNOUNCER: A bus accident.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I knew immediately we had fatalities.
NARRATOR: We uncover stories never heard, images never seen.
UNIDENTIFIED: Tough streets of Baghdad.
UNIDENTIFIED: Gang members driving down this street.
UNIDENTIFIED: Deadly risk.
UNIDENTIFIED: You can hear and see the choppers.
ANNOUNCER: Now, Drew Griffin, "Fatal Journey."
DREW GRIFFIN, CNN HOST: The journey began here at Bluffton University, a small Christian liberal arts school with only 1,200 students. The town of Bluffton, Ohio, a rural community, population 4,200, that includes the university's students.
Long-time resident John Betts says there are no strangers here. He attended school, so did his wife and children.
JOHN BETTS: We find a lot of value in the Bluffton community. In that the values that it has are life long. For example, you meet lifelong friends there. Their general motor is "embracing minds and spirits." It's very much focused on the spiritual.
GRIFFIN: Education and spiritual awareness come first but students, love sports. Baseball season is about to begin. A ritual every year here the beginning of March, annual migration south for the spring baseball tournament.
Last year's team captain Ryan Batal (ph) says it's an opportunity to shake off winter's rust. RYAN BAYTAL (ph): We play a fourth of our schedule down there. That's just a good way to go down there, enjoy the weather, bond as a team and come back ready to go for conference once it opens. Guys look forward to it for nine months. Once the season ends you start thinking about Florida. It's a huge part of our season.
GRIFFIN: This year's lineup is young but with four all- conferences stars returning, the beavers were optimistic.
FRAYTAL: We had seniors last year who set a tone, left us in the right direction and we -- us juniors felt we needed to carry that on and change the way Bluffton baseball is viewed. And we had a lot of good players coming back with experience. It was just really -- really excited about the season.
GRIFFIN: Twenty-year-old sophomore David Betts was competing for the starting job at second base.
FRAYTAL: Baseball meant the world to him. He loved the game. He loved to play. He loved to compete and he loved sports.
GRIFFIN: David had big shoes to fill when he arrived on campus, great-grandfather a former Bluffton University President. His sister Sarah holds every major pitching record for the school's softball team.
SARAH BETTS, SISTER OF DAVID: He was very competitive and always wanted to win and wanted to do well. So he loved when I would do well, too. I always told him, you know, how much I wished he was a girl because then we could have played together.
GRIFFIN: David skipped Florida trip last year to watch his sister play but this was his year.
BETTS: So, he was so proud this year that he was make the trip and he was ecstatic when he was told that he was going to be Starting.
GRIFFIN: One of the beavers' biggest fans, their bus driver, 65- year-old Jerome Niemeyer.
Junior pitcher Brandon Frietag says the team called him Jerry.
BRANDON FREYTAG: I knew he was a big baseball fan. Talking with the family, he was looking forward to coming down and driving us down and going to the games and just having a good time.
PAUL NEIMEYER, BUS DRIVER'S BROTHER: He would wear their ball cap out there with them. He would cheer them on when they were at their games.
MARCIA EICKHOLT, BUS DRIVER'S SISTER: He felt the people on the bus were his family for the week. Those were -- if they were kids, like the Bluffton baseball team, those were his kids for a week.
GRIFFIN: Niemeyer was scheduled to drive the second leg of the trip, taking over the wheel in Georgia. He and his wife Jean drove down the day before.
MARY JO MILLER, BUS DRIVER'S SISTER: They traveled a lot together. They enjoyed each other and they enjoyed everybody around them. Anybody that knew them well, Knew they were together as much As they could possibly be together.
GRIFFIN: Thursday, March 1, the players and coaches loaded up the bus. They left Bluffton at 7:30 p.m. The 1100-mile, 18-hour journey to Sarasota, Florida, was under way. They would drive through the night.
FREYTAG: We would do a straight shot, maybe a stop -- we stopped for a restroom break and next stop we had was the stop to pick the next bus driver, which was Jerry, up.
GRIFFIN: Most of the players slept while others watched movies or listened to music. At 4:30 a.m., nine hours later, the bus arrived at a Quick Trip station in Adairsville, Ga. The planned rendezvous point for bus driver Jerry Niemeyer to take over.
BATAL (ph): Guys you'd used the restroom. Got something to eat, were back to sleep in two seconds because we were all tired. And we left. Uneventful stop.
GRIFFIN: the Bluffton Beavers were halfway there.
Coming up -- the team's journey through Atlanta leaves an indelible mark.
A.J. RAMTHUN: I woke up as soon as the bus hit overpass's wall. The bus landed on the left Side. I looked out and sought road coming up after me.
GRIFFIN: Reliving the nightmare.
KYLE KING: It was all slow motion. I was being tossed around in the seat.
GRIFFIN: Thursday night, 7:30 p.m., Jerry and Jean Niemeyer arrived at the Comfort Inn in Adairsville, Georgia, 60 miles from Atlanta. Jerry asked for a wakeup call, took a menu from the local pizza parlor and left with the key to room 229.
Nine hours later, at 4: 30 in the morning, the bus carrying the Bluffton University baseball team pulled off the interstate at the Adairsville exit to refuel and turn the wheel over to Jerry Niemeyer.
KING: We stopped at a little diesel gas station, used the rest room. Everybody just got back on.
GRIFFIN: And went back to sleep?
KING: Went back to sleep.
GRIFFIN: Kyle King, a 20-year-old sophomore, was new to the team and didn't recognize the new driver.
Junior Greg Sigg saw an old friend board that bus, the driver who had taken him to Florida before.
GREG SIGG: I saw Jerry, I greeted him. He'd been our driver the previous two years. So I said hi, how are you doing?
GRIFFIN: Its tanks full, the bus with you new driver, Jerry Niemeyer, headed South on interstate 75.
NEWS ANNOUNCER: Time 5:15. Here is what's happening, Friday March 2.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Red alert sounding, all lanes blocked 75-85 northbound.
GRIFFIN: Up ahead even at this early hour Atlanta traffic reporter Herb Emery was telling listeners it would be a rough morning.
HERB EMERY, ATALTAN TRAFFIC REPORTER: We already had a big crash that morning that had all lanes of the downtown connecter blocked at University Avenue coming up from the south side. We had a wrong-way driver that caused that crash, so we were already working that.
RAMTHUN: I was asleep, like most of the guys on the bus were.
GRIFFIN: A.J. Ramthun a freshman, fought for a stop on this trip. As the bus approached metro Atlanta he had gone back to sleep.
RAMTHUN: We were supposed to be driving all of the way. The next time we were supposed to stop was 8:00 this morning for breakfast.
SIGG: We were excited because we stop for McDonald's breakfast. We knew we only had three and a half more hours until we had McDonald's breakfast, everybody was excited for that. It was a big deal to our team.
GRIFFIN: An hour after taking the wheel, the bus driver passed Interstate 258 that would have bypassed downtown Atlanta. Instead he decided to go straight through town and quickly moved into the high occupancy or HOV lane on the left.
With traffic usually moving at 65 miles an hour on this stretch, road signs were coming fast. At 5:30, the road remained clear as the chartered bus was just a few miles from downtown Atlanta.
Up ahead you can see that white sign over the HOV lane, identifying an exit Northside Drive one mile. But there is nothing on the sign that tells you the exit is on the left.
A half mile out, another exit sign for Northside Drive. Again, nothing about an exit on the left. You approach this split in the road that you are directed to exit left or stay straight on Southbound 75.
For reasons we will never know, Jerry Niemeyer steered his bus left, on to the exit ramp. He apparently didn't realize it.
It's this moment Kyle King, seated four rows behind the driver, in this seat is listening to music half asleep ands the only warning.
KING: And I woke up to the bus -- the driver's wife screaming.
GRIFFIN: Jean Niemeyer was sitting in the front with her husband.
KING: She said something like "This isn't the exit or the on ramp" or something and I remember hearing the bus driver saying something then. I actually heard the tires squeal of him trying to get it back on control.
GRIFFIN: Despite being on a clearly marked exit ramp, stop signs ahead and stop ahead warning painted on the pavement, Atlanta police say bus driver Jerry Niemeyer hit the intersection without braking. His bus blew through the stop sign, across four lanes of traffic and headed straight for a retaining wall.
MAJ. C. W. MOSS, ATLANTA POLICE: We don't have any evidence on the roadway suggesting that the bus had attempted to stop. There was no skid marks laid down that they were able to determine. As to the reason for that, that remains under investigation. We'll ultimately get an answer for that.
GRIFFIN: This skid mark of wheels turning right is the only evidence of Niemeyer's futile attempt to avoid disaster.
RAMTHUN: I woke up as soon as the bus hit the overpass's wall, that's when I look up and the bus landed on the left side which is the side I was sitting on. I just looked out and saw the Road coming up after me and that's all.
GRIFFIN: Kyle King says at This point in his life, he thought he was dead.
KING: It was all slow motion from there. I was being tossed around in the seats and I felt my head hitting off everything.
ANNOUNCER: I-57 southbound exit 252, Northside Drive, as you gets below the area, all lanes blocked. Looks like an overturned bus or truck.
GRIFFIN: Arriving firefighters assess the situation and knew right away their task would be grim.
UNIDENTIFIED FIREFIGHTER: Initial count is 33 injuries, 33 injuries. We will have multiple fatalities.
DISPATCHER: Engine 29, Truck 29, Battalion 3; respond to I-75 Southbound at Northside Drive.
NEWS ANNOUCNER: Five minutes until 6:00. We are now working another breaking stories this morning that directly impacts morning drive. A tour bus is lying on its side on I-75 northbound at Northside Drive.
MIKE MORRIS, ATALNTA JOURNAL CONSTITUTIION: I realized it was a bus. It sent cold chills down my side.
What we've got here is, the bus apparently went over the bridge on Northside Drive. The bus has actually gone over the bridge, gone over the fence, through the fence and on to the interstate.
RAMTHUN: I walked out of the bus through the windshield and I turned and all of the traffic stopped. And I'm down on the -- But we actually fell 30 feet from the top down to the bottom. And I was able to walk off.
SIGG: I hear a loud hit and then I felt a loud hit and that was us hitting the barrier and then hitting the ground. I just remember the second hit. It was extreme pain and just feeling it all through my body and not really knowing what's going on.
MORRIS: Guys started climbing out of the emergency hatch, all of them were covered with blood, most of them, and their faces were real bloody.
FREYTAG: I heard a player say about the ceiling exit. I punched it open with my foot and crawled out. I think I was first out.
GRIFFIN: After escaping the bus, Brandon Freytag made two important calls, first to 911.
OPERATOR: Atlanta 911 emergency
FREYTAG: Yeah, we've just been in a bus accident. A bunch of students. I don't know where we're at.
OPERATOR: I need a location.
FREYTAG: Where are we at, sir?
BYSTANDER: You're on 75 South.
FREYTAG: 75 South.
BYSTANDER: We've got somebody coming.
FREYTAG: Ok, they've got somebody coming. OK. A lot of people. Please hurry.
GRIFFIN: Then Brandon called his father.
FREYTAG: My dad's a family physician but more importantly, he's the county coroner, which obviously investigates crashes when people pass away.
DR. THOMAS FREYTAG: FATHER OF BRANDON FREYTAG: He said Dad, there happens been an accident. Kind of -- he has a tendency to sometimes call and pull our leg. And I said, oh? He said no, dad, this is real.
FREYTAG: I said, Dad, this isn't good. There are some people here that don't look like they are alive.
GRIFFIN: Atlanta newspaper reporter Mike Morris on his way to work found himself in the middle of a rescue operation.
MORRIS: Other people had gotten out of their cars and tried to help them get to the side of the road. Some of them lied down in the road, they were hurt pretty bad. They were asking for blankets. One guy said, I'm freezing, could you get my a blanket?
CAP. KEITH SHOEMAKER, PARAMEDIC: We were up and out quick.
GRIFFIN: One of the first paramedics to arrive was Captain Keith Shoemaker.
SHOEMAKER: A lot of people had come to help on their own, bystanders and they were in the bus trying to help.
RAMTHUN: I broke my back and I couldn't move and I just collapsed. And I'm sitting there laying, shaking in the road and I can't move or anything.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What was going through your mind, you were laying there, all of this happening? Like a bad dream?
RAMTHUN: It was a bad dream. I thought, I honestly thought I died.
FREYTAG: I knew there were at least two people under the bus. There was one that was caught. He was inside of the bus, like he was underneath the window frame inside and the other was mostly outside of the bus.
PARAMEDIC: The initial count, 33 injuries, 33 injuries. We will have multiple fatalities.
SHOEMAKER: I told them we were going to need a lot of help. I specified an additional alarm and two heavy rescue units, both of them. I could see we were going have rescues; it was pretty obvious that people were trapped.
GRIFFIN: Shoemaker triaged the scene. In his mind, setting up how the rescue would be organized, how many crews he need to call.
SHOEMAKER: I got into the bus -- you could walk through the windshield. I hollered back in the bus as far as I could, if you can hear me, let me hear you. If you can walk to me, walk to my voice. That's was when we got people to start coming out. Some team members were still in the bus and we were able to get them out. They were trying to help their friends.
GRIFFIN: Amazingly several thrown from the bus before it crashed on to the interstate. MIKE ENGLER: The next thing I remember was flying through the air and then I hit my head several times when I was rolling on the ground. And there was someone who had stopped and we asked what was going on and he said your bus just flipped over the overpass. And we looked over and didn't see the bus initially. But I saw a bunch of the players out walking around.
GRIFFIN: But not everyone survived.
SHOEMAKER: One of my initial reports was that I knew that we were going have multiple fatalities but I didn't know necessarily how many at the time.
GRIFFIN: Five players died. Most of them were seated on the left, the driver's side, the side that hit the pavement first.
SHOEMAKER: Once we deal with the living, then we have to deal with the dignity of those that didn't make it. So, I called command and I suggested to command that we establish a morgue.
GRIFFIN: Veteran traffic reporter Herb Emery observed the aftermath from his helicopter.
EMERY: That was a heartbreaking thing to see all the luggage and then figuring, hey that thing went off that bridge and fell down. And can't you just imagine what it would be like to be in that bus as it went over that guard rail? It was -- scary sight.
SIGG: I've never been in a fender bender before. This was my first car accident.
GRIFFIN: On the baseball Field, the Bluffton Beavers had relied on the leadership of last year's team captain, Ryan Batal (ph), so it was only natural that turn to him this crisis. He accepted the difficult task of identifying bodies.
BATAL: I remember just catching myself for a second because it hit me at once and I remember seeing all of the guys and I was -- not prepared for it. And somebody needed to do it and they asked I and it needed to be done and -- the families need to know.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's tough to live with that, isn't it?
BATAL (ph): At least I'm alive. At least I can live with it. I'll be all right.
GRIFFIN: In a moment, a painful reality, a parent's worst fear.
BETTS: No parent wants to identify their son at a morgue.
GRIFFIN (voice-over): From triage on the highway the race to save lives quicken as area hospitals began to receive the injured players and coaches.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: At this particular point in time, we have 19 student here's at Grady Memorial Hospital. Three of those students would be listed as critical.
GRIFFIN: Dr. Ricardo Martinez, professor of emergency medicine at Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital was ready.
DR. RICARDO MARTINEZ, GRADY MEMORIAL HOSPITAL: Such a large number of people and such poor information early on you really expect the worst. You just look for the worst.
GRIFFIN: The toll ranged from cuts and bruises to critical head injuries. Doctors and staff went to work.
MARTINEZ: In terms of major crashes, this was probably one of the biggest that I've seen and probably one of the more violent ones.
They really are lucky they were younger and we were lucky to have the resource we have and we were lucky to have dedicated nurses and doctors and trauma docs that came together for this.
GRIFFIN: Grady is the only level one trauma center in Atlanta. CNN's Sanjay Gupta is an attending physician.
DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There is no question that having a level one trauma center that close saved people's lives.
You have to get people taken care of very quickly in situation like that. The ambulances were there so fast and immediately calling the hospital and telling people what they have and people were in the operating room in less than an hour. If they have to be choppered somewhere or they have to be taken to a different hospital you just lose that window of opportunity and people would have certainly died.
GRIFFIN: Twenty-one-year-old sophomore Mike Ramthun had been pinned under the bus.
MIKE RAMTHUN, BUS CRASH VICTIM: I got transported to the hospital and onto a hospital stretcher and they were bringing in more players. I could see our Bluffton Baseball sweatshirts, I knew that was them. I really couldn't see who they were. But I could just hear them working on everybody.
GRIFFIN: An entire ward was cleared to keep the injured team together.
MARTINEZ: We're heading toward x-ray and there is an x-ray waiting area that we found to be open.
M. RAMTHUN: Every time the doors opened everyone was in a neck brace for a while and you could see them trying to lift up their heads, to look to see who was coming. We'd be a couple feet apart and just talk to each other and you know, just ask them how they were doing. I think lying there, you ask yourself a lot of questions. Who you were still missing, what had happened to those guys and I think a lot of reality started to set in in that room.
MARTINEZ: Mike's younger brother A.J. was also injured. In the moments after the crash he searched in vain for Mike. In the race to save lives, A.J. was taken to a different hospital. Patched up and released, A.J. was the first player to speak publicly.
A.J. RAMTHUN, BUSH CRASH VICTIM: I just wish there was something I could do to the families who lost their loved on ones. This is something that's not going to leave the guys that were on that bus this morning. This is going to be with us forever.
I was lucky that I'm feeling fine. My older brother, he's on the team as well. He got trapped underneath the bus. He has hip damage. He might not recover from that.
MARTINEZ: Back home in Ohio, parents were racing to get information and racing to Atlanta.
When I found out it was a Bluffton bus, I continued to fight the feeling that David was one of the dead and I kept telling myself, I need to be more positive than that but I think it was David's way of reaching out and saying it was okay, that that was OK. That that was OK. That he was fine.
JOHN BETTS, LOST SON IN BUS CRASH: When they told me that he wasn't in any one of the hospitals and that they needed some identification at the morgue, I told them that I would identify but at that point I was about 99 percent sure that David was among the dead.
I felt as a father that I let him down, because I wasn't there. When I was at the morgue I couldn't let go of his picture. I kept stroking it thinking if I just keep stroking him he'll be OK. He'll be all right.
MARTINEZ: At Grady Hospital, brothers Mike and A.J. Ramthun were finally reunited.
M. RAMTHUN: He walked in, he was just all banged up but I was so happy to see him and that he was walking. We cried for a minute together and then, you know, I just told him to make sure everyone else was all right. Because I'd be all right. Don't worry about me. So he went around and met with everybody and he just -- everyone was thankful to see each other.
GRIFFIN: A grieving John Betts turned to help his son David's teammates.
J. BETTS: I needed to go back to the hospital because I needed to be with the boys and I thought maybe that would be helpful for them to be with me and that I was there for about an hour and a half and that was a very good thing.
We supported each other and talked with each other and a believe I -- I told them and I promised them that good will come of this. Good will come of this, because he was too good for good not to come of this.
GRIFFIN: Six people died at the scene. Bus driver Jerry Niemeyer died behind the wheel. His wife, Jean, in her seat near her husband. Four players, two sophomores, David Betts and outfielder Tyler Williams and two freshmen, pitcher Cody Holp, third baseman Scott Harmon. A seventh victim, freshman pitcher Zachary Arend died at Grady Hospital a week later.
While the search for answers began, the families were taken to the crash site. No doubt in their minds at this moment, how could it happen?
In Washington, a team of federal investigators was starting to ask the very same question. How could this happen?
GRIFFIN: For drivers, Atlanta can be a confusing city with odd traffic patterns where highway exchanges like this one can twist and curl over and under each other.
Just ask traffic reporter Herb Emory, who has been flying above Atlanta rush hours for 20 years. And driving around the city even longer.
HERB EMORY, WSB RADIO TRAFFIC: I'll say, after driving Atlanta streets since the early '70s, I still have a deep pucker factor as we say when we get in those areas downtown.
So many times, people from out of town do not realize where they need to be and they make violent movements at the last minute.
I don't think that it's as clear sometimes where you should -- what lane you should be in to go where.
GRIFFIN: At expressway speed that kind of confusion can kill. This is theHOV exit lane bus driver Niemeyer took by mistake. The first left-hand turnoff coming into the city.
Now look at this, only one minute farther down the road. This is the same HOV lane as it enters downtown Atlanta. Here it curves off to the left, now separated from the main highway and out of sight for a short time. Georgia's top transportation official believes Niemeyer thought he had already reached that next turnoff where the HOV does veer to the left.
HARDOLD LINNENKOHL, GEORGIA TRANSPORTATION COMM.: It's just a straight shot through there and we really think that might be where the gentleman thought he was.
GRIFFIN: The same kind of deadly accident almost happened once before to the softball for Bluffton University.
SARAH BETTS, BROTHER DIED IN BUS CRASH: My coach two years ago, I'm almost positive made that same error.
GRIFFIN: The star pitcher, Sarah Betts, whose younger brother died in the baseball crash, was on the Florida softball trip. The coach was in the first van.
S. BETTS: I remember we were getting on the exit ramp and I'm in the van behind her and I thought, what is she doing? We're getting off, why are we getting off?
GRIFFIN: Four years ago, another van took this exit in error and hit the overpass wall. The driver died. So did a passenger in a separate car crash in 2001. Signs like this fail to point out the HOV lane continues on, straight ahead. There are almost no federal requirements on exactly what these HOV exit signs should say.
MARY SCHIAVO, FORMER INSPECTOR GENERAL, U.S. DOT: This left-hand exit configuration and lack of signage and warnings is stupid, stupid, stupid.
GRIFFIN: Mary Schiavo used to be inspector general at the U.S. Department of Transportation.
SCHIAVO: To a certain extent any left-hand exit is dangerous, because it presents a higher level of danger and confusion.
GRIFFIN: More confusing, the design can vary from state to state. Schiavo says there are really no federal regulations to set safeguards for these exits.
SCHIAVO: There is just no uniformity. Left exits, while I won't say they are forbidden by the federal government, because they are not. They are discouraged.
GRIFFIN: Not in Atlanta. Where state officials say they are planning more HOV lanes and more left-hand exits, not less.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We don't really want people to have to cross all those lanes of traffic to get off.
GRIFFIN: Five days after turning his bus onto that exit ramp, a funeral mass is held in Columbus Grove, Ohio for Jerry Niemeyer and his wife Jean. Brandon Freytag says he and his teammates place no blame on Jerry. The blame, he says, is on the road.
BRANDON FREYTAG, BUS CRASH VICTIM: He thought it was part of the road. If I was driving I could have thought the same thing. I would have thought the same thing. Just part of the road and I wouldn't have even thought about stopping. I've been with Jerry in the past. I no know for a fact for a fact he tried not to crash.
GRIFFIN: The state will do something about this exit within the week. Maybe add more signs and warning reflectors where the ramp begins but it has no plans to close the exit or alter the design. That disturbs last year's baseball captain Ryan Baightel.
RYAN BAIGHTEL, BLUFFTON BASEBALL CAPTAIN: Something needs changed. I don't know anything about driving or engineering or anything like that, but something needs changed, I mean, six people died, four 19-year-old boys died.
I don't know what needs to be - I mean, is there is a body count they need and then they'll change? But I think four is enough. I think six is enough.
GRIFFIN: In his father's mind, David Betts died in the Bluffton bus crash because of the lack of one thing all of us have in our own cars.
J. BETTS: If he would have had a seat belt on he would be alive today. There is no question.
GRIFFIN: But the charter bus, in fact all such motor coaches, are not required to have passenger seat belts.
J. BETTS: He did not die when it flipped. He died at impact, was thrown from his seat and hit a variety of things and had multiple skull fractures.
If he would have been in a seat belt, he would have been in his seat, probably having bruises, et cetera. I'm fairly certain it would be the same for the other boys.
J. BETTS: Buses, both charters and interstate carriers, face far fewer safety requirements than your everyday automobile. In large part because very few people die on buses. The industry says less than 10 passengers a year.
Yet when bus catastrophes do happen, often they involve rollovers. Rollovers can mean ejections. People thrown out of the windows. Seat belts are meant to prevent ejection.
DR. JEFFREY SALAMONE, GRADY MEMORIAL HOSPITAL: I would be very nervous riding in a motor coach without a seat belt around me at highway speed.
GRIFFIN: Dr. Jeffrey Salamone is a top trauma surgeon at Grady Memorial Hospital and helped treat survivors of the crash. Within days after the first four players died he began phoning congressman to urge seat belts on big buses.
SALAMONE: The four students who were fatalities were all individuals who were ejected from the bus and two of them were between the bridge and where the bus came to rest and then the bus was on top of two of them. GRIFFIN: This was a midair rollover. A spinning crash that hurled those four players out onto the highway before the bus hit. You can see where all of the windows were smashed out along the left side, the driver's side of the bus. The four were thrown through these windows.
In 1999, when this charter bus ran off an expressway in New Orleans on a casino trip, 22 passengers died, many of them were ejected.
That helped prompt the National Transportation Safety Board to issue this recommendation: "Develop standards for motor coach occupant protection systems that account for frontal impact collisions, side impact collisions, rear impact collisions and rollovers."
The NTSB asked that be done within two years. And said the passenger safety changes should be required then on all new buses so no one would be ejected under any circumstances. Seven years later, it has yet to be done.
MARK ROSENKER, CHAIRMAN, NTSB: It's much too long. We want to see something happen. We want to see it happen as quickly as possible.
GRIFFIN: Any change in the rules rests in the hands of a separate agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. We wanted to interview those officials. They said no.
SALAMONE: They've let us down and they've let individuals who died in motor vehicle crashes involving motor coaches down.
GRIFFIN (on camera): Here is one change the federal government might want to think about. My car and yours has to have the type of laminated windshield glass that even if shattered in an accident, it won't break apart or pop off. A bus does not have to have that. And neither your car nor any bus has to use this safer type of glass in the side windows.
JOAN CLAYBROOK, PUBLIC CITIZEN: Laminated side windows would save a lot of lives because of ejections. One-third of all occupant deaths are from rollover.
GRIFFIN (voice-over): The NTSB did recommend better windows on big buses, that, too, happened seven years ago, way back when David Betts was in the seventh grade. That, too, is still pending with the same traffic safety agency.
CNN was allowed in to this empty hangar at Atlanta's airport where investigators are trying to piece together the accident by the pieces left behind. The front windshield is gone. The bus front is mangled.
But even in the twisting forces of the crash, the passenger seats scene here did not break away. Only the people in them were tossed to and fro. Those side windows are gone. Otherwise this large bus survived its disastrous tumble with its structure largely intact. Even so, seven people would die.
Before they are done, NTSB investigators will pour over virtually every inch of this bus in the hangar here. They'll talk to every witness. Study that left-hand HOV exit. Go on their own bus ride up the ramp to recreate the accident situation before reaching their findings on how this fatal journey came to an end.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I believe you are going to see a fairly quick resolution to this. And I say fairly quick, maybe nine months, maybe a year.
GRIFFIN: In Ft. Myers, Florida where the Bluffton team was bound for a small college spring tournament, baseball went on. But only after a moment of silence before each game.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Would everyone please rise in joining us for a moment of silence in tribute to the Bluffton University baseball team.
GRIFFIN: Back in Ohio, with the tears came determination. First baseman Greg Sigg.
GREG SIGG, BUS CRASH VICTIM: Some moments it's just overwhelming and I cry for an hour. I cry about losing my friends. I cry that I have -- I'm 21 and burying four of my friends. Three today.
GRIFFIN: When there is an exit from his grief it will be baseball. Sigg wants the Bluffton season to continue for those who could not go on.
SIGG: I want to play and I want to play for them this year. I want to play for the fact that they can't.
GRIFFIN: David Betts' father flew back on a chartered plane with the team's survivors and told them this ...
J. BETTS: You need to go on. I told them also, on the plane when I got off, they need to play hard remembering - at least I can speak for David - David's essence, he loved to play the game hard. And I also told them that it's not my call, but I believe very strongly it's their call, whenever they want to start the season, whenever they can start the season, that's fine with us because if we were to ask David, do you want they them to play, cancel the season or what? I guarantee you -- he'd say play ball. Are you kidding me? Play ball.
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