While physical injuries are on the mend, the emotional trauma may take time to heal.
The accident occurred at 3:30 p.m. May 22 on SR 13. Wawasee Community School Corporation bus driver Cyndi Routh, 64, of North Webster, was stopped to allow a student to exit bus 30. Dave Granger, 63, of Warsaw, was following behind in bus 48. Julie Close, 47, of Syracuse, was operating the third bus, No. 44, behind Granger. All three were stopped.
John R. Wagoner, 61, of North Webster, however, was driving bus 28 when he failed to stop and crashed into the rear of the bus driven by Close. Wagoner suffered internal injuries and underwent emergency surgery at Parkview Regional Medical Center in Fort Wayne that evening. Close sustained a leg injury in the accident. Approximately 50 students received various non-life threatening injuries.
After a three-day holiday weekend, most of the students on buses 28, 44, 48 and 30 have returned to school, and three of the four bus drivers have returned to work. The fourth and the most seriously injured driver, Wagoner, is hoping to be released from the hospital by the end of the week.
Yesterday, Wawasee Community School Corporation Superintendent Dr. Tom Edington said, “I’m still in awe it happened, in disbelief. If I have it, parents and students have it. It seems so unlikely something like that could happen.
“Community people, bus mechanics flew in with spare buses to help haul students. People did the right thing without second thoughts. Community people just appeared.”
The injuries of students ranged from bumps and bruises to a few stitches to a couple broken bones. None were considered serious or life threatening. The injured were taken to IU Health-Goshen Hospital by parents and by ambulance, to Kosciusko Community Hospital, and some were even taken to Whitley Community Hospital in Columbia City by parents the following day.
Edington posted on the school’s website and Facebook, as well as distributed to all parents a notice regarding the accident and where things stand, going forward. (See the letter)
“We know we have students who may have emotional needs … we just want to make sure those needs get met, as well as the medical,” stated Edington. “If there are ones who need assistance down the road, we’ll work on that angle,” he promised.
While an estimated 50 adults and students were treated of the approximate 130 middle school and high school students on the buses, there could have been 200 students affected.
Edington noted through social media and phone calls the school has received many communications thanking them “for taking care of my kids.”
He also added Wagoner, like several of the students involved in the accident, have memory lapses of the accident. “The memories of the exact events are not fully back. It’s something I understand time will take care of, bringing out their recollection. He (Wagoner) has just bits and pieces of memory of the accidents.”
Edington also said this accident will help with every debate that goes on about seat belts. “With the type of accident we had and the way buses are made, I’m not sure seat belts would have lessened the injuries,” he said. All four bus drivers were wearing seat belts.
School’s Immediate Response
While witnesses to the accident immediately called 911, it’s believed both Granger and Close, two of the bus drivers, radioed the report of the accident to the school’s base. Because bus radio traffic is monitored throughout the corporation, the tone of the caller’s voice indicated “this was something to deal with,” said Edington.
Wawasee Middle School Principal Dennis Howland and assistant principal Shawn Johnson were on the scene immediately and their secretaries, Leslie Jackson and Eldonna Warren, were back at the school to help with communications. At least four administrators from Wawasee High School – Mike Schmidt and Steve Perek, assistant principals; Kim Nguyen, career and technical director; and Steve Wiktorowski, athletic director – went to the scene to assist, while other administrators, including WHS Principal Don Harman, went to the middle school.
“We decided to send students who were not injured, didn’t think they were injured or lightly injured there (WMS). We called and asked our central office to find medical personnel to go to the middle school,” said Edington. Syracuse Family Practice sent two doctors: Dr. James Mulry and Dr. Jodi Clouse; two nurses: Denise Grady and Lisa Brugh; and Amanda Jackson, practice manager.
Teachers still at the high school also went to the middle school, as did the high school nurses, Sarah Bauer and Myra Alexander. Students were checked out by medical staff and sent home with their parents.
Administrators, including all three elementary school principals, Edington, and even the director of finance, Jim Evans, went to the area hospitals. Edington himself went to KCH and spoke with parents, answering their questions regarding medical costs and assuring them the bills would be taken care of. He urged the parents to just “worry about caring for your child.”
Edington said the bus drivers were helping their students at the scene, even Close who received stitches in her leg, and even Wagoner helped students off the bus before needing help himself.
Buses Design Worked
The force of the impact moved the body of the fourth bus forward approximately 4 feet, leaving the frame exposed in the back. “The design of the buses was proven in several ways with the accident as hard hitting as it was,” Edington said. “You have the integrity of the buses themselves. The cabin where people are stayed intact and the design for the seats, which are compartmentalized, are designed to have those seated on the bus, stay in that compartment and not sustain great injury.”
Emergency drills are routinely practiced on all buses on the use of the emergency back door. “In this case, the doors could not be opened easily.”
Edington commented of the scene, “To come upon a situation like that and then to get in and be involved in it, I was pleased at how well groups worked together … we hadn’t trained with them, especially for four buses, or to have something of that magnitude and that number.”
While school officials cannot force parents to have their students ride school buses, Edington feels buses are the safest mode of transportation for students.
First Hand Account
Video from Routh’s bus, the lead bus, was the only clear video available for authorities to review and was shared with the media, including StaceyPageOnline.com, on May 24. (See video)
Routh also shared what happened with StaceyPageOnline.com. Just hours after the accident she said, “I always make sure other buses behind me are coming to a stop before I stop.” She said she begins her preparation to stop well in advance. “I saw 48 with its lights on and 44 with lights on, so I came to a stop. The student had just crossed the road when we were hit.”
Her bus was pushed forward some distance, although investigators have still not completed their report. After realizing what had happened and hearing the bus radio traffic regarding the accident, she had the students exit the bus and stay in a group. “All of a sudden lots of people were there,” she told The Mail-Journal.
An exclusive interview was given to StaceyPageOnline.com by Jaxon, Delanie and Parker Bame, three of the students on bus 28, the bus starting the chain reaction. The following is part of that interview. (See the full interview and video)
Jaxon and Parker were seated at the back of the bus. Delanie was in the epicenter of the crash and according to her dad, Ron Bame, “really dodged a bullet.”
Delanie said she was standing next to Wagoner when the bus slammed into bus 44. “He called me up there to ask me a question,” she explained. The eighth-grader said the school had radioed Wagoner to ask if a certain female student was on the bus. Delanie had a friend riding home with her that day and according to her, Wagoner wanted to know if she was the student.
“He was looking in the mirror,” Delanie said, thinking he was apparently looking for any other unfamiliar faces on the bus.
According to the Bame children, driver inattention seemed to be only the cause of the crash. All three say they don’t believe Wagoner attempted to brake just because of how fast the accident happened.
While Delanie does not recall the actual impact or even what happened to her she explained “I was told by this girl on my bus that (Wagoner) threw his arm out to grab me, but I don’t really remember.”
Delanie suffered a bruised left shoulder and thigh and a large bruise and scrape over her heart. She also had a cut on the left side of her head. “I think he probably put his arm out and pushed her behind the seat but she didn’t quite make it all the way,” her father said. “To me it looks like she got about halfway behind the seat and that’s why her left side is bruised.”
“There’s not a word to put with it,” said Alysssa Schmucker, North Webster Tippecanoe Township EMS director and advanced emergency medical technician who was on scene at the bus accident.
“Everybody there worked well together in the big scheme of things. Once we got a plan, we stuck with it,” she stated, noting from what she has heard, everybody involved was pleased “the way everyone worked together.”
North Webster EMS was the first to respond. They responded with four EMS personnel plus North Webster Fire Chief Jeremy Likens. “When we got there (and saw) the magnitude of the potential, we called for ambulances from wherever and said to keep sending them until we said to stop,” Schmucker explained. “It was a terrible mess. I’m thankful people were not hurt worse. Everybody was gone from the scene within an hour.”
Organized chaos is how some explained it.
Turkey Creek Fire Territory was the first to arrive to provide assistance, sending three of its ambulances. Multi-Township EMS responded with four ambulances. All total, it was estimated seven ambulances responded and two school buses were used.
“It was (chaotic) but it wasn’t,” said Mickey Scott, Turkey Creek Fire Territory fire chief. “The fact that we all have worked together is a big factor. It worked out. We have a fine relationship that’s good.”
Scott immediately contacted Dr. David Hartman, medical director at KCH, so he knew what was coming. “KCH handled the large influx of students well,” he stated, adding doctors were looking at students within minutes of arriving.
Likens was the person in charge at the scene. He also agreed once the plan was initiated things moved smoothly.
Likens commended all personnel who responded on the fantastic job. Never in his 21 years on the department had he experienced a bus accident of this magnitude. He called this “a 100-year crash, a mass incident the department had never before experienced.”
“A common consensus among all officers were that things went quite well for as chaotic as the scene was upon officers arrival,” stated First Sgt. Chad Hill, public information officer with the Kosciusko County Sheriff’s Department.
At least 18 officers from area agencies responded. “Most officers agreed that as we were traveling to the crash scene, we were all trying to envision and plan for what we might see or have to deal with,” said Sgt. Hill. “But as ISP Trooper Tim Carpenter came up to me and said, ‘Chad you’ve been a cop as long as me, have you ever seen anything like this in our 20-year career?’ and I said ‘No, not even close.’ The academy doesn’t even consider, let alone plan for something as dramatic.
“As the evening continued I came to realize that the national media also considered the magnitude of the crash incredible as the Indianapolis Star and the Washington, D.C., desk of the Associated Press called my cellular phone. I think that being such a small community allows us to know the first responders, firemen and other officers so that we could function so tactfully in an extremely stressful situation.”
A meeting of the various organizations that responded is still being planned to discuss events and responses. “Sometimes time gives you a little perspective on things. We know where things are now,” said Edington.
The meeting, said to be planned for this week, will allow those agencies to discuss what happened and how everyone responded to it. “We’re hoping we never have to use that knowledge, but if the response to the situation is in the range of good, we want it to be even better the next time,” Edington added.
“God forbid it ever happens again,” said Schmucker, “but after the fact there are things responders think of that could be done differently.”
Scott noted, “Whether it’s good, bad or indifferent, there are ways for improvement.” Turkey Creek Township was responsible for transporting Wagoner to the air ambulance.
“We have a nice working relationship with surrounding EMS. Dispatch did a wonderful job,” stated Schmucker, who noted responders on duty were out the door as soon as officers were notified of the accident. “We were in front of the fire station when we received the call. They were getting formation for us, told us what they knew. They did an awesome job … it’s an experience I hope never happens again.”