Bledsoe County middle school principal identified as victim

Bledsoe County middle school principal identified as victim of Tomato Head crash

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'Miss Debbie' was a pillar in the Pikeville community. Friends tell 6 News she had been battling cancer. 'Miss Debbie' was a pillar in the Pikeville community. Friends tell 6 News she had been battling cancer.
A witness describes the crash "as if a bomb went off." A witness describes the crash "as if a bomb went off."
Dewayne Kelley (source: Facebook) Dewayne Kelley (source: Facebook)
"It wasn't like she looked at them like they were children, she looked at them like they were friends," said middle school parent Shonda Boring. "It wasn't like she looked at them like they were children, she looked at them like they were friends," said middle school parent Shonda Boring.
A manager at Wild Birds Unlimited said the store lost tens of thousands of dollars worth of merchandise. A manager at Wild Birds Unlimited said the store lost tens of thousands of dollars worth of merchandise.

KNOXVILLE (WATE) - Knoxville police have identified the driver involved in an accident that claimed the life of a Crossville woman.

Deborah Thompson, 58, a Bledsoe County middle school principal, was killed Thursday when a driver lost control of his car and plunged into the Tomato Head restaurant in West Knoxville and struck her while she was checking out at the register.

The driver of that car has been identified as Dewayne Edward Kelley, 53, of Knoxville.

A sample of Kelley's blood was taken for an alcohol analysis, but police do not suspect that alcohol was a factor in the crash.

He sustained minor injuries and was taken to the hospital. He has since been released.

Kelley's car initially crashed into the Tomato Head and came to rest in neighboring Wild Birds Unlimited.

His attorney, Jim Andrews, told 6 News Kelley suffers from an aggressive form of multiple sclerosis, though it's unknown whether his illness played a role in the crash.

His lawyer says he's devastated by what happened.

He says Kelley was formerly a probation officer and homicide detective in Florida.

Witness describes aftermath of crash

A witness to the deadly crash spoke with 6 News about the horror that unfolded during the crash.

"Really just in shock of how sudden it was. It came out of nowhere," said Ryan Foltz, a Tomato Head worker.

Ryan Foltz was working as a host at the Tomato Head when a Chrysler sedan slammed into the building.

"Right when it hit, I just heard a big bang and literally my first instinct there's a bomb going off," Foltz said. "Next thing I know the ceiling is falling in close to me."

Foltz says he was just minutes away from clocking out from his shift and leaving for the day when the accident happened. He says he was standing at the host counter just a foot away from where the car came crashing in.

"I feel things hitting my head, shards of glass, just small particles kind of hitting my face and I just ran," he said.

Foltz says he wasn't seriously injured

He says he feels sad for the victim's family, but is thankful the crash didn't happen when the restaurant was busier.

"During a lunch rush, that's right where all the customers stand and it's just mind blowing," he said.

The 25-year-old says the experience has left him grateful to be alive and unharmed.

"I'm quite lucky."

Pikeville community mourns the loss of a leader

Thompson was a pillar in the Pikeville community, working at the Bledsoe County Middle School since it opened its doors.

She was affectionately known by everyone as Miss Debbie.

"If there was ever a perfect principal, it was Miss Debbie," said Assistant Principal Steve Perry.

Deborah Thompson is from the Crossville area, but has been with the Bledsoe School District for 23 years.

"She loved the kids, she loved the staff, everybody loved her, she was a wonderful person," Perry said.

Miss Debbie was a special education teacher before taking on the role of principal.

Parents say their children remember her fondly.

"It wasn't like she looked at them like they were children, she looked at them like they were friends," said middle school parent Shonda Boring.

Thursday's tragic accident has left the community in shock.

"It's just disbelief," said Director of Schools Jennifer Terry.

Friends say Miss Debbie was battling cancer and her courage was an inspiration.

"My daughter said they had an assembly at school and she told all the students she had cancer and said I'm not going to wear a wig, I'm going to be strong and I'm going to fight this," Boring said.

Family was unable to comment on Miss Debbie's condition, but her strength is what friends will remember most.

"Her smile, her determination, how she inspired everyone around her," said Terry.

Businesses begin rebuilding

Tomato Head reopened just before 6 p.m. on Friday.

The restaurant's co-owner told 6 News they spent Friday cleaning up and had inspectors on scene. On Friday morning, they were still without power, but it was restored later in the day.

Several employees received minor injuries, but were not seriously hurt.

Some workers chose to seek the assistance of a counselor because of the traumatic nature of the incident.

Wild Birds Unlimited has been relocated to another space within the same strip mall and has since reopened. But the general manager said the business is a long way from getting back to normal.

"It literally looks like a small war zone," said General Manager Kathy Getsey.

Car parts and shattered glass now cover the store's floor.

"The car came so far up into our store that we have broken chairs from the Tomato Head," Getsey said.

The general manager says the exact cost of the damage is still unknown, but the loss of product is estimated to be in the tens of thousands of dollars.

"It's very dangerous in there right now. We're trying to work around it and get our stock out and get it over here as much as we can," she said.

As for Getsey, she says she feels lucky to be alive.

"We're grateful. We're grateful right now that we're standing, but we have a lot of work to get back on our feet," Getsey said.

Wild Birds Unlimited says its gotten a lot of support from the community. In fact, Fedex, which sits just a few doors down, gave the store this sign for free so customers would know they're still open for business.

Family sets up memorial fund

Thompson's family has set up the "Miss Debbie Thompson" Memorial Fund.  The money will go back to Bledsoe County Middle School, according to a bank official.

First National Bank of Tennessee in Crossville and First National Bank of Pikeville will be accepting the donations.

6 News Reporters ALEXIS ZOTOS and SAMANTHA MANNING contributed to this report.

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