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October 29, 2002

Bus crash brings out the best in residents of nearby towns

From: Kansas City Star, MO
Oct. 29, 2002

The Kansas City Star

Larry Townsend, arriving at the chaotic scene just minutes after a bus chartered by the Kansas School for the Deaf rolled down an embankment, went to work helping the 34 victims.

But the western Kansas sheriff soon found communicating difficult. Most of those injured spoke through sign language.

It was 10:30 a.m. Mountain time Sunday, and the five churches in nearby Weskan and Sharon Springs were still holding services, so Townsend sent a call for interpreters, volunteer emergency medical technicians and rescue team members.

Soon, almost 60 persons were giving first aid and hauling victims up the steep, rain-soaked hill and into residents' vans and SUVs, which supplemented eight ambulances for the long drive to hospitals.

And in a county of just 1,900 people, eight residents who could sign -- including Townsend's 20-year-old daughter -- raced to the scene.

"I've never seen a rescue effort that went that smooth, that quick and that efficient," said Townsend, Wallace County's sheriff.

Residents in Wallace County and adjacent Logan County pulled together to offer comfort to the students, coaches and cheerleaders who had been returning to Olathe from a football game in Colorado Springs, Colo.

An assistant coach, Lory Kuschmider, 52, of Olathe died in the crash.

The bus driver, Ronald Zimmerman, 60, of Raytown was the only crash victim to remain hospitalized Monday afternoon. He was in good condition at Hays Medical Center in Hays, Kan.

Several other victims were treated and released from hospitals in Colby, Oakley and Wichita on Sunday and Monday.

What caused the bus to lose control on a gentle curve on U.S. 40 remained unclear Monday. Townsend said speed did not appear to be a cause.

"But pending the Kansas Highway Patrol's report, we're not making any guesses," Townsend said, adding that he did not expect a citation to be issued.

Penny Fryback, a motor carrier safety inspector for the Kansas Highway Patrol, inspected the wrecked bus and found no mechanical defects. She said the bus had passed its annual inspection in April.

Fryback also inspected Zimmerman's driving records -- his commercial driver's license and approval to transport passengers, his driving log, hotel receipts, fuel receipts and toll tickets. She found him to be in compliance with the law, including regulations limiting the amount of time a driver is on duty and driving.

Zimmerman owns Sunset Tours Inc. of Raytown, the tour bus operator, said Mark Libertine, assistant vice president of claims for the company's insurer, Lancer Insurance Co. The insurer today will send representatives from its Cleveland office to Olathe to meet with school officials and victims and their families, Libertine said.

From joy to terror

As victims recovered in Oakley on Monday morning, Chuck Theel, media coordinator for the Kansas School for the Deaf, went to see the damaged bus.

The roof was crushed, with some sections ripped away. In some places, the tops of the seats were exposed; in others, the roof was about a foot above them.

The bus showed the horror of a ride that began as a joyous journey home from a 72-12 rout of Colorado School for the Deaf.

Kristopher Danner, 15, a sophomore cornerback and end from Leavenworth, was having a good time with his friends when the bus lost control.

He and several others were thrown out as the bus tumbled off the road, Kristopher said through an interpreter.

Freshman fullback and nose guard Mike Harper, 15, sitting next to his girlfriend, was starting to doze off when the accident occurred.

He said he felt the bus begin to slide as the rear tires slipped off the road. As the bus began its slide, Mike saw mud splashing up. Then the bus rolled about three times.

As the bus spiraled out of control, he said, it seemed like something out of a nightmare.

"Everybody just flew out of their seats," Mike said through an interpreter. "In the middle of the wreck, I thought I would die."

His girlfriend was tossed from the vehicle, and Mike crawled out through a broken window. Other than a cut, a bruise on his elbow and a stiff neck, Mike said, he seemed OK.

He walked around the bus in search of his girlfriend and saw Kuschmider.

"He kept telling everybody he couldn't breathe good," Mike said.

Mike turned to attend to his injured girlfriend. He didn't learn for several hours that his coach had died.

Outpouring of help

Kelly Kemp of Winona, Kan., was traveling with her sister, heading west on U.S. 40, when she saw the bus begin to swerve into her lane.

"They were coming around a curve and it was like they couldn't turn. They just kept going straight," Kemp said. "I knew it was going to slide into the ditch, and if it didn't it was going to hit us."

Kemp's sister, an emergency medical technician, got out of the car to help the injured students, while Kemp stayed in the car with her baby and called for help on a cell phone.

"I heard a lot of screaming," Kemp said.

She said she saw several students crawling through broken windows to escape.

As residents and emergency workers arrived, they found the passengers already helping one another, Townsend said, by placing blankets on those lying on the ground.

It took five or six persons lifting each stretcher to carry victims up the steep embankment.

Most of eight ambulances carried two victims each to a hospital in Colby and to Logan County Hospital in Oakley, where townspeople turned out in force to assist.

Oakley residents set up a disaster center in the basement of the Logan County Courthouse. The center was up and running about 25 minutes after officials unlocked the doors.

Without anyone asking, help flowed in.

"Everything from a blanket to a house to stay in, they came up with it," said Jason Moses, the county's emergency preparedness director and undersheriff.

Some of the town's youngsters even showed up with video games for the students to play.

"The people in Oakley were wonderful," said Kristopher, the 15-year-old from Leavenworth. "They gave us clothes and food. They were very nice."

Moses said local businessmen opened their stores, normally closed on Sunday, to provide needed items. Red Cross workers showed up with personal care kits.

One family, he said, was preparing to sit down to a meal of Sloppy Joes when word came that the disaster center was being opened. They picked up their dinner and brought it to the center for the students and other passengers.

Local residents who knew signing arrived to interpret. An educational cooperative provided equipment that allowed the students to communicate with their families.

Shortly before midnight Sunday, a chartered bus that had been dispatched to Oakley returned the team and its supporters to Olathe.

The school conducted an assembly Monday to explain the crash and Kuschmider's death. Colleagues plan to have a memorial service, but details are unfinished.

"I feel sad because I've lost Coach," Kristopher said. "But I'll just be positive.

"We have good memories and love him."

Copyright 2002 Knight Ridder.