Memorial service Wednesday for football team in bus crash that left 4 dead, 40-plus injured

Devonte Gibson
Devonte Gibson

A public memorial service for the four people killed in the Sept. 17 bus crash in North Carolina is scheduled for Wednesday, as federal, state and private investigators continue to probe the crash that a lawyer representing several of the victims says was caused by a blown front tire.

Rock Hill attorney Joel Hamilton said his firm, Schiller & Hamilton, has hired its own investigator. There is “no question the initial cause of the crash was the blowout of the tire,” he said, but what remains to be determined is why.

The public memorial service, organized by the Ramah Juco Academy football team, is set for 6:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Rock Hill High School gym, said Bakari Rawlinson, team coach and one of more than 40 people injured in the crash. Many of those injured and families of those who were killed are expected to attend.

“This is a chance for all of us to heal together,” Rawlinson said. “We want to bring the community together.”

The crash, he said, has shown him how insignificant smaller matters are.

“I felt my life leave my body and come back,” Rawlinson said.

Clinton College students Devonte Gibson, 21, of Rock Hill, and Tito Hamilton, 19, of Pahokee, Fla., were killed, along with 8-year-old Darice Lamont Hicks Jr. of Rock Hill and bus driver Brian Andre Kirkpatrick, 43, of Chester. Kirkpatrick’s family said he was a member of Sandy River Baptist Church. The bus was owned by Sandy River Baptist Church of Chester.

Rawlinson said he has been contacted by federal and state investigators, but he declined to discuss details. In addition to private investigators, The National Transportation Safety Board, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the N.C. Highway Patrol are investigating the crash.

Investigators are looking at the condition of one of the bus’ tires and whether it met requirements for safety and use, the guardrail that the bus hit before smashing into a bridge, and all facets of the crash, Hamilton said.

There are questions about the manner of maintenance of the bus, Hamilton said. Church buses fall under different safety and other requirements than for-hire buses. Federal documents show that the bus was not registered as a for-hire carrier.

Hamilton said he and his team are looking at the circumstances of how the bus was leased and who was operating the charter.

“The facts need to be found,” he said.

Legal action by lawyers representing the victims appears to be imminent. One Texas lawyer who has signed up some victims as clients has already called what happened negligence.

Ramah is a team for college students, Hamilton said, which gives players a second chance at going to college and playing football. The goal is for players to go to school and thrive, and potentially have another route to higher-level college football after improving academically.

Most of the players were attending Clinton College, Hamilton said, but the football team was not connected with the college.

“This was year one, game one, of the only college football program in Rock Hill,” he said, “and many people poured their blood, sweat and tears into it.”

Rawlinson said Ramah’s 2016 season is canceled after the crash, but the team hopes to play again.

“We will be back in 2017,” he said.