Authorities said students from Tusky Valley Middle-High School were on their way to the Ohio School Boards Association conference in Columbus when the collission happened. The pupils had been scheduled to perform at the event.
During a vigil Tuesday evening at the school’s stadium, Dr Derek Varansky, superintendent of Tuscarawas Valley Local Schools, confirmed three students, one teacher and two parents died in the incident.
He identified the students as 15-year-old Katelyn Owens, John W. Mosely, 18, and Jeffrey D. Worrell, 18. High school teacher Dave Kennat, 56, and parents Kristy Gaynor, 39, and Shannon Wigfield, were following in a car behind the bus. The three also died in the incident, which involved five cars in total.
At least 15 students and the bus driver were taken to area hospitals, officials said, though the number of students hurt remains unclear. Out of two drivers operating commercial vehicles, one was treated at the scene and the other was taken to a hospital with non-life threatening injuries.
The driver of a second passenger vehicle was also taken to an area hospital.
The conference was cancelled after news of the accident broke, a spokesperson for the association said. Ohio Republican Gov Mike DeWine spoke at the event on Monday.
Dr Varansky called the news “devastating and heartbreaking”.
“Right now, our focus is on getting in touch with our Tusky Valley families who had loved ones on the bus and providing support to our entire school community,” Dr Varansky said. “Our Trojan family is strong, and it will take that strength and love to get throughout these coming challenging days.”
Approximately 55 people, including 54 students and a driver, were on board when the truck rear-ended the bus around 8.30am on Interstate 70 West close to the Smoke Road underpass in Licking County, about 40 miles northeast of Columbus. All of the individuals killed were pronounced deceased at the scene.
The charter bus the students were on belonged to Pioneer Trails, a bus company operating out of Millersburg. In a statement posted to Facebook, the business said it was cooperating with authorities to determine the cause of the crash.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to all of those impacted by this accident,” the statement concluded.
The entity has a satisfactory safety rating, according to US Department of Transportation data. It has been involved in one other crash in the last 24 months that resulted in one injured person.
During the vigil, Dr Varansky said 20 students were transported to five area hospitals with reported injuries. Eighteen of those children have been discharged and released to parents, he said, while two others remain hospitalised with serious but non-life-threatening injuries.
Some of the individuals harmed were taken to Licking Memorial Hospital, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, OhioHealth Grant Medical Center, OhioHealth Pickerington Methodist Hospital and Mount Carmel East Hospital, according to The Dispatch.
A representative of The OhioHealth system said it received five patients across their campuses with minor injuries. A spokesperson for Nationwide Children’s Hospital said the facility received three victims following the incident. One has been discharged while two remain at the hospital.
The incident was been classified as a “mass casualty” event, The Columbus Dispatch reported, meaning that 10 or more people had been injured and needed emergency services to transfer them to local facilities for treatment.
At least 34 students were taken to the Etna United Methodist Church after the incident, where officials set up a reunification center for those not injured.
Don Hawkins, regional communications manager for the Red Cross, said a “steady stream of parents” had been arriving at the site since about 12pm ET.
The nonprofit fufilled a request for 30 units of blood from the Mount Carmel Health System, according to local reports.
Officials closed the highway in both directions for most of the day while crews cleaned up the site. Around 4.30pm it had been reopened on the Eastbound side, the Ohio Department of Transportation (DOT) said. The road is frequently used by semi-trucks.
A media release sent out by the DOT said that all the vehicles involved in the crash were traveling westbound when the accident occurred. At least three of them caught in the collission.
Cameras nearby show smoke rising from the crash site. Several agencies, including the Ohio State Highway Patrol, Licking County Sheriff’s Department, Ohio State Highway Patrol and state DOT responded to the scene.
A hazmat team was also on site to stabilize any potential chemicals from the crash, John Wieber, deputy director of Licking County Emergency Management, said.
The Ohio governor reacted to the news on X, formerly known as Twitter, on Tuesday afternoon.
“Fran and I are praying for everyone involved in the bus crash east of Columbus today,” he said. “It is our worst nightmare to have a bus full of children involved in such a terrible crash, and it is certainly the worst nightmare that families and schools can endure.”
A representative for Mr DeWine confirmed that the governor ordered all flags at the Ohio State Capitol and in Tuscarawas County be lowered to half-mast to honour the victims of the day’s tragedy.
A GoFundMe has been set up to support the families of the victims. It has so far reached nearly $4,000 out of a $10,000 goal.
Dr Varansky, the superintendent, said that the middle-high school would be open on Wednesday, though it would not be a usual day. Counselors will be on site to provide support. Still, he emphasised that he would respect parents who decide to keep their kids home instead.
“Today began as an exciting day,” he said, standing in front of a black table where six candles had been placed. “And then it quickly turned into one of the darkest days in our district’s history.”
The crash remains under investigation by the Ohio State Highway Patrol.