Cleveland students returning from a Class 4A state playoff football game had a narrow escape after the bus carrying them was struck by an alleged drunk driver.
After a three-hour trip home, Cleveland High School band members were in the city limits and 2 miles from their school when an oncoming car crossed the center line of U.S. Highway 64 at Cedar Creek bridge.
The two vehicles hit on both front driver sides as the bus driver managed to avoid a head-on crash. The bus then high-centered on the bridge guard rail, avoiding a plunge down a steep ravine to the dry Arkansas River bed.
Band Director Donna Casey was on board the bus with assistant band director Nic Johnson at the wheel.
"He did an incredible job of driving," she said Saturday morning. "It could have been so much worse."
Cleveland Chief of Police Clint Stout said if the bus hadn't high-centered, it would have gone all the way into the deep ravine. No one was injured in the crash.
"It was a fairly steep drop," Casey said. "It kind of looked like, at the time we were on the bus, that the only thing holding us up was a small stand of very young trees. We were all thinking, ‘Gosh, we hope the roots of those trees are very, very strong.'"
Joseph Garen Chapman of Pawnee was behind the wheel of the car that crossed left of center on the bridge. His car crashed into brush in the ravine.
Chapman was arrested on several complaints, including driving under the influence of alcohol and driving with a suspended license. The 33-year-old man has served prison time for driving under the influence of alcohol (second offense) and possession of a controlled drug within 1000 feet of a school in 2010. He served a total of 15 months before his release.
Cedar Creek bridge was closed to all traffic for about an hour and a half as the students were transferred onto another bus. There were 28 students on board as well as the band leaders.
Residents who live up to a mile away reported hearing a loud boom directly followed by multiple sirens blaring.
The Cleveland police, fire department and paramedics were on scene within one minute of the crash, Casey said. She called the response by emergency personnel "phenomenal."
Buses carrying football players arrived safely at the school a short time before the band bus crashed.
Two sport utility vehicles carrying cheerleaders and driven by faculty members also were in front of the crash. After dropping off the cheerleaders at the school, the staff members went back to assist the shaken students who already had exited the bus from the emergency back door.
The only injuries reported were minor cuts and scrapes on Chapman's face and hands.
The bus was cleared from the scene at about 4 a.m.
Later in the day, Chapman was released from the Pawnee County Jail on a $25,000 bond.
Keep checking back to this story for updates, and News On 6 viewers can see more in the 10 p.m. newscast.