The NTSB investigated the crash and issued a 38-page report on Feb. 8, 1974. The report provided details of the incident, a determination of probable cause, and recommendations meant to lessen the chances of a similar accident happening again.
The most startling detail in the report, to me, was that based on the speeds of each vehicle, the time for perception, decision, and reaction was 3.2 seconds for each driver. In other words, once they saw each other coming, they had 3.2 seconds to make life-or-death decisions.
Here are some highlights from the report, which can be viewed in its entirety online.
• The NTSB determined “the cause of this accident was (1) the driving of the bus in the opposing lane of traffic while the bus was passing an automobile without unobstructed clear-sight distance ahead, and (2) the bus-driver’s failure to avoid the tractor-semitrailer for reasons unknown.”
• “The truck driver had no alternative as to the evasive action which he took. ... Apparently, the truck driver tried to give the bus as much clearance on the highway as possible and still not wreck the truck. It is possible that the truck driver felt he had given the bus enough room to pass safely and expected the bus driver to swerve toward the eastbound lane and thus avoid a collision.”
• The evidence at the scene and witness’ observations indicate that there was sufficient room for the bus to pass between the oncoming truck and the automobile which the bus was passing. The bus driver could have avoided the truck.
• If the highway had been marked with a double center line ... the bus driver probably would not have tried to pass the car and the accident would not have occurred.
• The bus, with 27 passengers aboard, had departed Knoxville at 4:45 a.m. — 1 hour and 15 minutes late. The late departure was because the bus originally meant for the trip had a mechanical problem, and the driver and passengers were transferred to this bus instead. The driver drove the 42.4 miles to the accident site in 50 minutes, averaging 50 mph. Eastbound and approximately three miles west of Bean Station, the bus was behind an eastbound car driven by an adult male with a male hitchhiking passenger. The driver of the car ... entered the westbound lane and passed a slow-moving car ahead of him. The driver then watched in his rearview mirror as the bus also successfully passed the slow-moving car. He noticed that the wheels of the bus crossed over the white stripe which marked the outer edge of the westbound lane of the highway.
• After the car and bus crossed a bridge, they entered a curve to the right. When the bus was about 1,500 feet into the curve, it began to pass the car. The bus moved into the westbound lane, pulled even with the center of the car’s left-side door, and, according to the car’s driver, seemed to '”hang there.”
• At that point, the car’s driver first saw a tractor-trailer approaching in the westbound lane. Another tractor-trailer, which was traveling about 250 feet ahead of the car in the eastbound lane, had been blocking the car driver’s view of the approaching truck. Realizing that an accident was imminent, the car’s driver tried to accelerate to give the bus driver room to pull back into his own lane. Watching through the outside and inside rearview mirrors, the car’s driver saw the left front of the bus strike the left front of the truck. The hitchhiker also witnessed the collision. The car’s driver stated that he did not hear any braking noises from either vehicle prior to impact. It was 5:35 a.m.
• Evidence indicated the truck driver attempted evasive action by braking and pulling onto the shoulder. Marks on the roadway and shoulder of the roadway indicated at impact the right wheels of the truck were on the shoulder and five feet north of the edge of the road. The left wheels of the truck were three feet into the westbound lane — eight feet away from the center line (each lane of the highway was 11 feet wide).
• The left front wheel of the bus was six inches onto the north shoulder of the highway, and the left rear wheel was on the very edge of the road. The right front and rear wheels were three feet, six inches and three feet north of the center line, respectively.
• After impact, the bus rotated counterclockwise, traveled 86 feet, and came to rest, right side up, in the eastbound lane. Six adults, a child, and two infants were found outside the bus after it came to rest. Four of the adults and the two infants were on the pavement adjacent to the left side of the bus. The two other adults were found under the rear of the bus, and the child was found 10 feet south and five feet west of the right rear corner of the bus. An adult was seen falling from the damaged left side of the bus after it had stopped.
• The man driving the car the bus had been trying to pass backed up, let the hitchhiker out to help at the scene, and traveled ahead to the nearest truck stop and called police. The Tennessee Highway Patrol and the Grainger County Sheriff’s Department were notified at 5:50 a.m. The Sheriff’s Department called the Grainger County Rescue Squad, which arrived on the scene at 5:58 a.m. The first Highway Patrol unit arrived at 6:17 a.m. Twenty-two Highway Patrol personnel, 19 ambulances from four counties, and firefighting units from Bean Station and Morristown responded. Rescue workers used crowbars, air hammers, and acetylene torches to free trapped passengers from the bus.
• The last ambulance left at 7:10 a.m.
The NTSB said the Tennessee Department of Highways should study the need for double yellow center lines on 11-W near the area of the accident, as well as on similar roadways statewide. Also recommended: restraints for passengers, which could prevent ejection and/or being projected into sharp or hard surfaces; and bus designs required to include impact protection for interior panels located in and around passenger windows.
Another online resource for those interested in the accident is a recently created Facebook page called 1972 Bean Station Bus Crash.