- Associated Press - Sunday, June 14, 2015

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Knox County Schools principals Sydney Upton and Sherry Hensley were attending a conference in Gatlinburg on the afternoon of Dec. 2 when their cellphones rang with the first news of the crash.

They were deep into a Title 1 conference to gather information about how they could improve the performance of their students. Upton thought she could wait to call back until the session was over.

“But Sherry came in and pointed quickly for me to leave the room. She told me that two of our buses, one from Chilhowee and one from Sunnyview, had been in an accident,” said Upton, Sunnyview’s principal. “We didn’t know at the time which buses they were. We didn’t have all of that information … we didn’t know how serious it was.”

They gathered staff members who were with them, headed to their cars and began an agonizing 40-mile drive back to Knoxville. During the trip they slowly began learning just how serious the situation was as text messages and calls blew up their phones.

In May, the two veteran educators sat down with the News Sentinel to talk for the first time about how they and their school communities have coped in the wake of the collision that killed Sunnyview Primary students Zykia Burns, 6, and 7-year-old Seraya Glasper, and one of the school’s instruction aides, Kimberly Riddle, and injured 27 other students.

Authorities recently blamed the crash on a texting school bus driver. The principals referred all requests for comment on the news to Knox County Schools administrators.

But in their interview last month, Upton and Hensley said the moments driving to the scene of the crash were scary because they just didn’t know what was happening.

“My stomach was just turning and all upset because I didn’t know. I didn’t know how to help. I wanted to get to the scene and make sure everything was OK,” she said.

“I got there and just seeing everybody there and all the emergency vehicles, I didn’t know what to do.”

Upton said that’s also when Jeff Riddle, Kim Riddle’s husband and a fellow church member, called her for a second time asking questions about his wife that Upton couldn’t answer.

“So I gave (the phone) to one of the sheriff deputies who knew him because (Riddle) works for the sheriff’s department and when I gave the phone to him and I saw the look in his eyes, I knew. I knew,” she said.

Hensley said after arriving at the scene, she focused on finding her students.

“That was my first priority because they needed that. My teachers were there, but there was something about me being there,” she said. “It was my duty to go find the student and comfort them.”

Then, Hensley said, she started making her way through the crowd when she heard what she described as a “deep hurt scream.”

“I was just rubbing her back trying to calm her down and she turned around and looked at me and I realized that I know her,” she said.

“It’s like that pain that goes to the bottom of your stomach because now you’ve put a face to the pain.”

The woman was Seraya’s mother, who began sharing with Hensley about how her daughter ended up riding the bus to school that morning.

“I just turned myself away from her to get myself together, to get that strength that you get from the Lord because I can’t let her see me break down in order to comfort her,” Hensley said.

“You can’t practice it. No one can give you the words to say except the Lord … it was never about me again.”

The two principals said the community support their schools received in the days and months after the crash has been overwhelming, but amazing.

For example, Chilhowee received so many teddy bears that all 276 students received more than one, with many still left over. Hensley took the remaining stuffed animals to the East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, which had helped families from both schools after the crash.

“I just want to thank the whole community for all that they’ve done and the outpouring of support that they’ve given us,” Upton said. “I know they continue to keep us in their thoughts and prayers.”

Hensley said the community support shows “that we’re a team and as we work together as a team, we can conquer anything.”

They added they also received support from district officials, who tried to let them focus on taking care of their students.

“It took a lot off our plates in order to help us process and heal along with the others,” Hensley said.

“We had time to just … become human again because someone else was taking over. That’s the best feeling to know that you’re not in it alone and it’s OK to cry.”

Upton agreed, saying time has also helped them to move on and heal.

The women said the crash has changed them and the way they see life, but also strengthened both of their walks of faith.

And they know the faiths of Zykia, Seraya and Riddle were also strong.

“What we need to focus on is not what happened and trying to find fault - we may never understand that - but what those three individuals have done the short time that they’ve been here on Earth and what their faith was,” Hensley said.


Information from: Knoxville News Sentinel, https://www.knoxnews.com

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