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October 28, 2002

Sharon Springs community scrambles to find signers to deal with unexpected crisis on highway

From: Topeka Capital Journal, KS
Oct. 28, 2002

SHARON SPRINGS -- Wallace County Sheriff Larry Townsend knew he needed extra help when he approached the scene of a deadly charter bus crash and saw several people trying to tell him something by using sign language.

"My daughter signs," he explained, "so I knew they were deaf and trying to communicate with me."

There were 34 people, including players, coaches and cheerleaders from the Kansas School for the Deaf, aboard the bus when it missed a curve on U.S. 40, went down a grassy embankment and landed upside down at the bottom of a ravine about 11:30 a.m. Sunday, the Kansas Highway Patrol said. An assistant coach for the team, Lory R. Kuschmider, 52, of Olathe, was killed.

The team had played Saturday, posting an 82-14 victory at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind in Colorado Springs.

All 34 people were taken to hospitals and at least six were kept overnight. All had been released by Monday afternoon.

Churches in Sharon Springs were still holding worship services Sunday when they received an urgent call from rescuers working the crash.

The rescuers pleaded with church leaders to send volunteer emergency medical technicians and anyone who knew sign language to the crash scene, about 11 miles east of Sharon Springs.

Townsend climbed down the embankment in the rain to reach the wreckage about 10 minutes after the crash. He said every window in the bus was broken out and the roof was crushed down to just even with the top of the seats. Many of the injured had crawled through the broken windows and had huddled around the more seriously hurt, signing back and forth, Townsend said. Some had broken bones, while others were badly bruised and cut.

Townsend's 20-year-old daughter went to the scene of the crash to help translate. And the call to the churches yielded about seven other interpreters, along with more rescue workers. They arrived in their Sunday best, some wearing high heels or suits.

Because of the rain, the ambulances couldn't get to the crash site. It took about five people to haul each stretcher up the hill to the waiting ambulances. Townsend estimated about 60 people from the large but sparsely populated county of 1,900 helped.

"One of the great things about living in a county or community like this is just what happened," he said. "People show up to help and respond well to a disaster."

Meanwhile, staff at Logan County Hospital in Oakley tracked down more people who knew sign language, said administrator Jay Plank. The 15-bed hospital initially received 21 of the 34 injured people.

Though the hospital had a plan for handling disasters, Plank said he hadn't anticipated ever treating more than a couple of deaf patients at a time.

"You can't plan for everything," he said. "This one is off the books."

As team members left the hospitals Sunday, they were taken to a shelter set up in the basement of the courthouse in nearby Oakley. Volunteers brought food, blankets and closed-caption televisions. And special telephones were set up that allow the hearing impaired to type in messages.

Most of the team returned Monday morning to the school aboard another bus.