IM this article to a friend!

November 10, 2004

TSD grieves over death of student

From: Knoxville News Sentinel (subscription), TN - Nov 10, 2004

November 10, 2004

Grief counselors on Tuesday fanned across the Tennessee School for the Deaf campus to comfort friends of a 16-year-old student who died as a result of a van accident.

"(Her death) is obviously very difficult," said TSD Superintendent Alan Mealka. "TSD is a small school. In many ways, we're like a family. We're all in pain and mourning this tragedy."

Viola Wooten, also known as Marie, died Tuesday morning at the University of Tennessee Medical Center.

She was riding in a 1998 GMC Safari van with five others when the wreck occurred shortly after 5 p.m. Monday in South Knoxville. They were on their way to the Super Wal-Mart on Chapman Highway for a shopping trip, Mealka said.

The van's driver, Valerie Raley, 24, of Knoxville, was traveling south on Island Home Pike when she was distracted, said Darrell DeBusk, spokesman for Knoxville Police Department.

"We believe she looked away while having a conversation with a student," he said.

When Raley's attention returned to the road, she noticed an oncoming vehicle and quickly steered to the right, DeBusk said. Then Raley steered to the left to avoid driving off the road, but she overcorrected, sending the van into a ditch and causing it to flip repeatedly. The van then smashed into a utility pole, he said.

DeBusk said the crash is still under investigation.

Raley, who has been with the school four years, was one of two house parents in the van, Mealka said. The second adult, Harriett Simpson, 24, was in the front passenger seat. She was listed Tuesday in serious condition at the UT hospital.

The other occupants were students Albani Matthews, 15, of South Pittsburg, Tenn.; Brittany Jones, 16, of Monterey, Tenn.; and Amesha Flint, 17, of Antioch, Tenn.

The two adults are counselors who lived with the four students in a cottage on the TSD campus in South Knoxville. Four of the eight students in that cottage went on the shopping trip, Mealka said.

Of the 200 students who attend TSD, a K-12 institution, 150 live on campus.

Albani and Brittany were treated at UT hospital and released. Amesha apparently did not require medical treatment.

Marie, a Pikeville native, came to TSD as a kindergarten student, Mealka said. She was in her sophomore year.

He described Marie as a people-magnet who had a zest for life.

"When she walked into a room, her smile would brighten the entire room," Mealka said. "She brought a lot of joy into our lives."

Marie was athletically inclined, and played on the basketball team and ran track, he said.

He also commended Brittany, who is hard-of-hearing, for communicating with emergency workers and helping them understand what happened.

"We have heard that she was very brave and a great support to her classmates," he said.

Lola Alapo may be reached at 865-342-6376. Don Jacobs may be reached at 865-342-6345.

Copyright 2004, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.