A community has wrapped its arms around Union Elementary School and the family of the first-grader tragically killed Tuesday afternoon as she departed a bus and headed across the road to her waiting mother — it was an outreach, the school’s principal said, that was much needed and appreciated as everyone searched for normalcy among tears and heartbreak that won’t soon go away.
“This is just a testimony of the spirit of Sampson County and the great people who live down here in the Union district,” said principal Linda Jewell Carr, fighting back tears Wednesday morning, her effort to be strong for students and staff, all shaken by the events that unfolded after young Alyiah Morgan left the school on a bus taking her to her Delway community home less than 24 hours before.
“No one can understand this, we probably never will. This is just very hard.”
Alyiah, the petite, smiling youngster who was, Carr said, “pretty new” to UES, having started school there back in the fall, was killed around 3:30 Tuesday afternoon as a log truck passed the stopped school bus and hit the youngster as dozens of her young bus-rider friends watched from their seats inside.
Wednesday, as the truck’s driver, 37-year-old Johnny Allen Spell sat in jail under a $200,000 bond, charged with a laundry list of offenses, Carr was busy trying to comfort youngsters who had either witnessed the tragedy, shared a classroom with Alyiah or were just indirectly impacted by the sadness that seemed to engulf their school.
Counselors were on hand to work with the students and Carr, herself, spent time in classrooms, offering hugs to those who wanted them, along with words of solace and advice.
“They’re very tearful, trying to find a way to cope with something none of us can really cope with right now. We have told them it’s OK to cry, to grieve, and that they’ll probably be sad for a long, long time. We also encouraged them to talk about their feelings rather than hold them back.
“And we assured them that being sad was OK, and that the truth was they weren’t going to understand why this happened. Some things, just don’t make sense no matter what age you are,” Carr stressed.
Community members, Carr noted, had been calling all morning Wednesday, offering to come out and be a support in some way, at the school, with the family … and the greater community has been offering the family service options. It’s a real comfort to know we are in such a closeknit, compassionate community here in Sampson. It has lifted us up at a time we have certainly needed it most.”
Faculty members, Carr said, had been supportive of one another, even as they tried to put on a show of strength for their young charges, and the school’s team of bus drivers had surrounded their comrade who, like others, was ripped apart emotionally by the tragic events.
“No one really understands the role of our bus drivers,” Carr said, “the responsibility they carry with them, the way they love and care for those children. This has been very hard on the bus driver. She’s been very emotional, which is understandable, and she has asked not to drive … she needs some time. But she has a very strong support system with these other drivers. They will band around her; they did so yesterday (Tuesday) and they will continue to do so. They are a very giving, caring group.”
Sampson County Schools superintendent Dr. Ethan Lenker, who visited the elementary school Wednesday morning, said the entire system was saddened by the tragedy.
“We have grief counselors in place to help staff and students deal with this unexplainable loss. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of this young child as well as the Union Elementary School family.”
As an entire community mourned the loss of the young child, the driver charged in connection with her death sat in the Sampson County Detention Center under a secured bond as law enforcement officers continued their investigation, one that began shortly after the youngster was struck and a call for help in locating the log truck’s driver went out.
Spell is charged with felony hit and run, involuntary manslaughter, felony passing a stopped school bus and driving while impaired. N.C. Highway Patrol Trooper Bryan Smith said it was not alcohol, but some other substance, which was involved, but he declined to comment on what that substance might have been.
He did say, however, that because there was impairment, the district attorney could add additional charges at any time.
“This is still under investigation,” Smith said.
He and fellow troopers leveled the initial charges against Spell, of 192 Bud Spell Lane, Roseboro, after he was apprehended Tuesday night, several hours after the accident at 2834 Haynes Stretch Road, the home of the truck’s owner.
The truck Spell was driving is owned by Ricky Lucas, Smith said, and not by T&S Trucking, the logo still showing on the vehicle.
Sheriff’s deputies, acting on a tip called into the E911 center, located the truck and Spell late Tuesday afternoon. Cpl. Marcus Smith said officers took him into custody without incident and turned him over to the Highway Patrol.
Trooper Smith praised the joint effort by the Sheriff’s Department, the Clinton Police, the State Bureau of Investigation, the 911 center and the community in helping to locate Spell.
“It was really teamwork, and we certainly appreciate everything that was done to help us,” the trooper asserted.
Although the Patrol officers worked difficult cases day in and day out, this one, Smith said, had certainly taken its own kind of toll.
“It’s been a difficult 24 hours,” the trooper said Wednesday morning. “No one can know just how difficult.”