Coach of football team involved in deadly bus crash says he paid for trip, federal investigation continues

Published: Sep. 22, 2016 at 12:38 PM EDT|Updated: Jan. 18, 2017 at 5:22 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - The coach of a JUCO football team involved in last weekend's deadly wreck in Richmond County says he paid for the trip, while federal safety investigators continue to look into the vehicle's operating authority.

Saturday, a bus full of Ramah JUCO Academy football players crashed after investigators believe a tire popped, causing the bus to swerve into the median, side swipe a guardrail, and crash into a bridge column.

Two players, an 8-year-old son of one of the coaches, and the driver were all killed. 42 others were injured.

This week WBTV reported safety investigators with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration were looking into the bus's operating authority on the highway.

According to online FMCSA records, the bus is owned by Sandy River Baptist Church in Chester, South Carolina. On the FMCSA's database, it states that
"U.S. DOT# 2445628 has no current for-hire operating authority with FMCSA."

The bus is listed as a private carrier. Investigators say private buses don't have the same safety and inspection requirements as commercial buses. For the first time, Coach Bakari Rawlinson told WBTV that he met with driver Brian Andre Kirkpatrick the night before the wreck to pay for the trip.

"I met him on September the 16th, around 9:30. I paid him his fee that he required," Rawlinson said.

Rawlinson explained that the first-year program was on a limited budget. The costs came out of his pocket. He said as he shopped around for services, another area coach gave him a referral and phone number to someone he believed to be part of a bus service.

"He gave us a very fair price that was cheaper than the competition in the area," said Rawlinson, who said the two even planned future game day routes.

The coach told WBTV he feels deceived and claims he has a witness and text messages to prove he paid for the bus.

"If they would have told me it was a not-for-hire bus, if they would have told me that this bus had issues, or if they'd have told me anything that might have drawn suspicion, we wouldn't have been on that bus," Rawlinson said.

The National Transportation Safety Board was at a tow yard inspecting the bus's tires Monday. Tuesday, WBTV cameras saw an NTSB agent and two other vehicles at Sandy River Baptist Church as part of the investigation.

The church's pastor is listed as Keith Taylor. WBTV called Taylor's cell phone Wednesday to ask if the church had been paid for the bus service, or if someone else could have been operating the bus without the church's knowledge.

Taylor said he was not making any statements and hung up.

The NTSB, FMCSA, and North Carolina State Highway Patrol are all involved in the investigation.

South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicle records show Kirkpatrick had a valid commercial driver's license. Rawlinson said he felt comfortable during the ride, but is now full of questions.

"I feel that justice is getting ready to come out, I feel that people are going to be exposed," Rawlinson said.

Rawlinson said he has talked with investigators. He claims he was led to believe the bus had the authority to accept his payment and safety transport his players.

"Do your homework before you get on these buses with people," said Rawlinson.

Thursday, Rawlinson will attend a memorial service for two of his players at nearby Clinton College.

"You can't get those lives back, and that's the hurtful part," Rawlinson said.

The investigation is expected to take several weeks and could take even longer depending on what the agencies find in the probe. No person or organization has been cited for any violations.

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