ACKERMAN – As Choctaw County School District officials met with the media Wednesday morning, their emotions told the story of a community still in shock.
Less than 24 hours prior, Ackerman High School staff members Steven Moss, 37, and Phyllis Graham, 53, were killed when an 18-wheeler scraped down the side of one Choctaw County school bus before colliding with a second bus driven by Moss.
It is believed Moss and Graham were instantly killed in the wreck on Miss. Highway 8, just west of Calhoun City.
The accident also took the life of the truck driver, Gary Bailey, 54, of Mantachie.
Luckily, there were no life-threatening injuries sustained by the three other AHS staffers and 54 seniors who were returning home from a visit to the University of Mississippi in Oxford, but the words spoken Wednesday by Ackerman principal Terry Bellew and Choctaw County superintendent Donna Shea told the story of a still-shaken town.
“We mourn the loss of two great teachers, strong role models and loving parents,” said Shea. “Both were very much loved by the students and each had a love for their students that flowed through them daily. It is with utmost appreciation that we are able to get up this morning and offer thanks to God for we know that it was He who stepped in and spared the lives of 54 students and three faculty members yesterday afternoon.
“We will never understand why, but we realize that we have much to be thankful for, even in this great tragedy.”
Moss was in his seventh year at Ackerman in which he served as both a teacher and a coach.
Moss taught history while coaching both golf and football for AHS. He had also previously served as head baseball coach at the school.
“Coach Moss was a strong, positive role model for the young men that he taught and coached,” said Bellew through tears. “He was a dynamic person, always with a kind word and many times with a humorous comment that could be heard in his usual quiet, witty tone.”
Moss left behind a wife and five-year-old daughter.
Graham, formerly a member of the Webster County School Board, was in her fifth year at Ackerman as a special education teacher.
She was on Tuesday’s trip to Oxford to accompany one of her students so that he could visit the Ole Miss campus.
Graham was survived by her husband, son and daughter.
“Mrs. Graham’s love for her students was evident in everything that she did,” said Bellew. “For 12-and-a-half years, she devoted her life to loving, encouraging, inspiring and teaching special needs children.”
Through the tragedies, both Bellew and Shea expressed thankfulness for the lives that were spared.
According to Shea, one student was sent by helicopter and five students were carried by ambulance from the scene to area hospitals Tuesday.
The remaining students were taken to the Calhoun City Fire Department to be reevaluated at which point 11 more students and one teacher were taken to hospitals.
An unspecified number of students were taken to hospitals by family members.
As of Wednesday morning, Bellew said four individuals remained hospitalized for continued observation.
Shea made it a point to show gratitude to Calhoun County superintendent Mike Moore and all who helped at the crash scene.
“We would like to thank Calhoun City, Calhoun County and other area volunteers for all of their assistance,” said Shea. “Thanks also to a host of other volunteers who converged on the scene from area counties. We’ve received calls from area school districts, Mississippi State University, area churches and a host of others offering their prayers and assistance. We would like to offer our appreciation to all for your support in this very difficult time.”
Going forward, Shea requested privacy for students and staff members as the healing process begins.
Wendy Polk of the Mississippi Department of Education said that process started on Wednesday as area school districts, Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi worked together to provide counseling services at Ackerman.
“It’s going on with the students, as well as the teachers and faculty who need that counseling,” Polk said. “We still ask for everybody in the community to pray for the students, teachers and staff and the entire community for this great, great loss.”
Ackerman mayor Dick Cain said he believes his town’s compassion is shining through in their hour of loss, helping ease all of the physical and emotional wounds.
“It’s almost amazing,” said Cain. “The town of Ackerman, with the size it is, if you want to see your friends, just let something happen. This town just always outpours support and comes together, it doesn’t matter who it is.”