ALEXANDER COUNTY, N.C. — A woman who veered into oncoming traffic and struck a school bus that flipped with 19 students on board was driving 86 mph, North Carolina State Highway Patrol said.
Investigators with the NCSHP Collision Reconstruction Unit estimated the school bus was traveling down Icard Ridge Road at 35 mph when the crash happened in December in Alexander County.
Kimberly Austin, 56, of Taylorsville was arrested at her home the next day.
On Monday, February 11, Austin will appear in court.
"The speed estimates for Ms. Austin’s vehicle are an original traveling speed of 86 mph and an estimated speed at impact of 71 mph,” said Master Trooper Jeffrey Swagger, indicating Austin may have begun to brake before hitting the bus.
Highway patrol said emergency crews responded to the crash on Icard Ridge Road near Bulldog Lane around 7:30 a.m. on December 17. The crash happened near West Alexander Middle School near the Bethlehem community.
Austin was charged with two counts of misdemeanor child abuse in connection with the crash, citing a 10-year-old passenger in Austin's car at the time of the collision, and another child in the vehicle prior to the collision. She was given a $10,000 secured bond.
Austin was also charged with driving while impaired and driving left of center. A blood test was conducted; results are pending.
The crash also sent 13 students who were on board the bus and the bus driver to the hospital. School district officials said 12 of the students were released that day with bruises and broken bones, but 8th grader Katie Sisk was rushed to Brenner Children’s Hospital in Winston Salem, where she spent three days in critical condition.
“I broke like five ribs I think, punctured both my lungs and fractured the bottom of my spine I think,” said Sisk, who must now wear a back brace.
“Keeps her upper part of her body up off of her spine fracture. She still runs the risk of being paralyzed,” her mom, Wendy Sisk, said.
Both Katie and Wendy said the morning of the crash is one they’ll never forget.
“When we got there and I saw that bus on its side my heart and my stomach dropped. Like, I think I jumped out of the truck before it even came to a stop and I started running down the road and my slippers kept falling off, so I just kicked them off and took off running barefooted to get to her," Wendy recalled.
“There was kids sitting there, crying and screaming, scared and shaking. There was one little girl that was unconscious. Then she’d come back conscious and then go unconscious again. There was one kid that had her knee gashed open.”
Wendy said she quickly spotted Katie, who appeared unhurt and busy helping her friends.
“She was like, 'I got to check on this one, check on that one.' That’s what she kept doing the whole time was walking around checking on everybody,” said Wendy.
Katie, after being checked out herself, turned out to have serious injuries.
“Most of the time I would say I was being brave, but I was actually really scared. I was scared about what would happen next, would I have to be in the hospital a long time, would I have to miss school, miss my friends, miss my teachers,” said Katie.
Now, a little more than six weeks after the crash, Katie is still learning her new normal.
“We have to lay her on her back to change her shirt. She has to be given a sponge bath. She still hasn’t been able to take a shower,” said Wendy.
Katie also hasn’t gotten back on the bus, although she’d like to do so.
“You’ve got to put it behind you not be scared to do it again, because if you do then you’re going to be scared the rest of your life so,” she said.
Asked if she’s angry about what happened, Katie responded, “No point in being angry because you can’t change the past.”
The Sisks can’t change the past, but they are hoping changes come for the future. Next week, Austin is due in court on the traffic charge and again on February 11 for the more serious charges. This marks Austin’s 13th arrest since 1997.
Although Austin was charged with DWI, veering left of center, and two counts of child abuse, the Sisks feel that’s not enough.
“Two counts child endangerment, just for the two kids that were in her car. What about the 19 kids that were on the school bus?” asked Wendy.
“Maybe that’ll wake her up and hey, it’s not just your life you’re playing with. You’re playing with other people’s lives. At 56-years-old, when you decide to do whatever it is you do recreationally, and then you get into a vehicle. It makes me angry, very angry, she could have killed 20 people, and that’s not counting herself,” she added.
Despite the anger, Wendy said she does feel grateful the crash didn’t end worse than it did and says there’s plenty of praise to go around, starting with Katie.
“Two other little girls fell on top of Katie and said that Katie was holding herself up, plus the other two little girls to keep from crushing her. She’s my hero, she makes me very, very proud of her. Very proud to call her my daughter, she’s a very brave, tough little girl,” said Wendy.
Katie says there’s another hero: Her bus driver, 20-year veteran Rita McCauley.
“My bus driver, Rita, she could have hit the car head-on instead of trying to dodge it and Rita probably would have killed them because the bus is way bigger than that car. So basically, she saved their life while trying to save ours," said Katie.