A school bus just blocks from its destination at an elementary school on Friday morning crashed into a Jeep, spun around and then hit another vehicle before flipping onto its side, killing one adult and sending dozens of children to hospitals, authorities said.
All 35 people aboard the bus survived the crash that happened just after 8 a.m. at the intersection of Kilbourn Road and Illinois Route 173 in Wadsworth, 45 miles north of Chicago, Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran Jr. said.
Authorities said the driver of a Jeep Wrangler that collided with the bus, 62-year-old Philip Smith, of Beach Park, died of traumatic injuries. Two people from the Cherokee were taken by ambulance to a hospital.
Although authorities at first said the female bus driver may have run a red light, they said later that witnesses gave conflicting accounts and it was not yet clear who was at fault. Still, officials said the bus driver would undergo a drug and alcohol screening.
"This morning the witnesses told us the light was red when the bus entered the intersection. Since that time witnesses have told us the light was possibly not red," said Lake County Sheriff's Department Sgt. Sara Balmes.
Whatever happened, it was a grim sight that greeted investigators. After the first collision with the Jeep Wrangler, the bus spun around and hit a Jeep Cherokee before flipping onto its side. The front roll bar of the Wrangler was completely removed by the force of the crash, the hood flattened and squashed into the front seats. Debris lay scattered in adjacent farm fields.
"It sounded like a thud, a really hard thud," said eyewitness Barbara Taylor, whose home overlooks the scene.
Taylor said she immediately ran from her home as children were emerging from the emergency exit.
"There was more fear and trauma in that way with the children. There were bloody noses and eye injuries," she said.
Of the 35 children on the bus, 12 were taken by ambulance to area hospitals. Another 23 were picked up by another school bus and taken for treatment.
At Vista Medical Center East in Waukegan, spokesman John Griffin said an 11-year-old girl who was in fair condition with a skull fracture was transferred to Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago. Five other students were treated and released.
Sarah Toomey, a spokeswoman for Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, said 25 children were taken to the hospital and 24 had been released by late afternoon. The remaining child remained in observation in good condition, she said.
She said the children had "very minor injuries," including bruises, bumps and scrapes. Some children had broken bones, particularly in their hands as they braced themselves and fell from their seats when the bus tipped over, said Charles Nozicka, the medical director of hospital's pediatric emergency department.
Frantic parents looking for information raced to Newport Elementary School for news on their children.
"I know a lot of parents here, we're just concerned," parent Nicole Washington said. "We don't know where our kids are. This is the scariest thing you can get, a phone call at the school about your babies."
The school superintendent said emails were sent out to parents followed by calls to parents whose children were on the bus.
"The safety of the students we transport is our top priority and we share in the concern for all those involved in this accident. We anticipate having more information later today," Durham School Services said in a statement.
The school bus didn't have seat belts but did have high seat backs, which officials credit with helping to prevent more serious injuries.
"These children were much smaller, small kids," said Brian Keller, Chief of Operations with the Lake County Sheriff's Office. "The high seat backs are protecting the kids as they were bouncing around in the bus."
Among those on the bus were 6-year-old Louis Ramos Jr. and his 9-year-old sister, Jessica.
The boy, still nervous Friday afternoon from the ordeal, was OK aside from a few small cuts on his face.
"I hurt myself on the window," he said.
A photo released by the family showed the girl smiling from her hospital bed.
Psychologist Sue Radke said she was on her way to work when the crash happened and stopped at the hospitals to help. She said the children were shaken up but most escaped serious injury. Mostly, she said, the children just needed reassurances of love.
"A lot of them said they wanted their mommy or their daddy, and so you'd say, 'Well, what would your mommy or your daddy do?' and they'd say, 'They'd give me a hug,' and so you give them a hug," said Radke.
The intersection where the crash happened has a history of problems. In fact, traffic signals were only installed there last year after a number of crashes, including one fatal, in the seven years prior.
The bus company carrying Friday's children, Burham School Services, also has a record of crashes. According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the company was cited for six crashes in Illinois in 2012, including one last December that left 22 people injured.
The family of the deceased driver declined to release a photograph but in a statement said he was an entrepreneur who owned several construction businesses and a man who could "build nearly everything."
The Jeep he was driving was one he purchased and customized for his wife of 19 years as a Christmas present, they said.
He leaves behind his wife, Lisa, two daughters, and a granddaughter.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.