ALEXANDER COUNTY, NC (WBTV) - A woman charged with driving while impaired in a crash involving an overturned school bus Monday morning is now facing misdemeanor child abuse charges.
More than a dozen students and their bus driver were transported to the hospital after the bus crash on Icard Ridge Rd near Hwy 127 near West Alexander Middle School. The crash was very close to West Alexander Middle School and near the Bethlehem community.
Officials initially said Austin was being charged with 20 counts of misdemeanor child abuse - one for every student on the bus and one for her granddaughter who was in the car with her. Deputies later provided a correction, saying the number of counts Austin faced was two.
Troopers say a Toyota passenger car, being driven by 56-year-old Kimberly Ann Austin, crossed the center line and struck the bus. Thirteen students and the bus driver were rushed to three different area hospitals - Caldwell Memorial Hospital, Frye Regional Medical Center and Catawba Valley Medical Center.
Of the thirteen injured on the bus, troopers say 12 were categorized as minor injuries and one was listed in critical condition.
Austin was taken to Frye Regional Medical Center and later charged with driving while impaired and driving left of the center line.
Tuesday, deputies announced Austin was facing two counts of misdemeanor child abuse charges. Authorities say she just dropped one of her grandchildren off at school and had a second in the car when the crash happened.
Troopers said Austin’s mannerisms and speech led them to believe she was impaired. A blood alcohol test was administered but no results are back yet. She checked herself out of the hospital Monday afternoon.
WBTV spoke to Austin Tuesday afternoon. She denied being drunk at the time of the crash, and said she was “torn up over the whole thing."
“This is really, really killing me,” Austin told WBTV reporter Steve Ohnesorge. “All I’ve thought about are those children.”
Sixth grader Autumn Birchfield was aboard the bus. She says she didn’t hear the impact but noticed the bus swaying and heard other children screaming. “And then it turned over.” Birchfield says books and people went flying. “Some landed on top of me.” She escaped with just bruises but 13 were immediately transported to the hospital.
By 4:30 p.m., all but two students had been released from the hospital and those who remained had been listed in stable condition.
Alexander County Schools PIO Renee Meade said there were 19 students on the bus at the time of the crash. The six who were uninjured were taken to the school.
Meade said parents of all the students involved have been contacted. The rest of the school was alerted to the accident through a school-wide message. The bus did not have seat belts but officials were not sure if it would have made a difference in this accident.
Bond for Austin was set at $10,000.