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November 29, 2002

Football Team Survives in Silence

From: Newsday - 29 Nov 2002

Deaf students carry on after crash, with help
By Tim Dahlberg

November 29, 2002

Sharon Springs, Kan. - As their bus barreled through the rain and fog, Tyler Thompson and his teammates settled in for a long trip across Kansas.

Some slept, while others chatted about the excitement of the day before, when the Jackrabbits beat a Colorado football team 72-14.

That night, they had enjoyed the school's homecoming dance.

A few rows away, senior captain Chuck Arwood was trying to read a book, but was feeling uneasy.

The bus seemed to be going awfully fast as it crossed the prairie of western Kansas on that late October morning, and Arwood grew increasingly nervous as it swayed back and forth.

Suddenly, he could feel the bus skidding sideways on the slick road and saw dirt flying on the windows. Arwood hung on to an overhead luggage compartment as the bus slid off the road, ripping out windows and sending players and cheerleaders tumbling about like rag dolls.

The bus skidded on its side, then tipped over and the roof was crushed; some students ended up in a wet ravine.

Cold, scared and confused, some began to panic.

A passing motorist saw the crash, and within minutes Sheriff Larry Townsend, the only lawman in Wallace County, was speeding to the scene.

The anguished cries were unlike anything he had ever heard. He saw their desperate faces - and their hands. They were pleading for help with their hands.

"They were all trying to converse with us," Townsend said. "We didn't know what they were saying."

Soon, it became apparent why.

The bus was carrying 34 students, coaches and cheerleaders from the Kansas School for the Deaf.

The crash killed assistant coach Lory Kuschmider; everyone else survived - many with broken bones and contusions.

"It was like these kids had a guardian angel watching over them," said Dr. Celeste Rains, who treated most of them.

Lying in the ravine, they couldn't tell rescuers what hurt. They couldn't hear the promises that help was on the way.

And they didn't know the people of Sharon Springs were already rallying to their aid.

There's not much to do in tiny Sharon Springs, the Wallace County seat.

The Strand Theater on Main Street shows movies on Friday and Saturday nights, and hunting season usually brings sportsmen eager to shoot deer or pheasants.

Farming and cattle ranching keep the town of 800 going. On weekday mornings, ranchers in overalls and dirty baseball caps discuss the world over coffee at the SS Country Store.

"It's somewhat of a cross between Mayberry and Dodge City," Townsend said.

Thirty miles from anywhere, and 40 miles from the nearest hospital, the people of Sharon Springs figured out long ago they had to take care of each other.

Their ambulances are hand-me- downs, and one of the two volunteer fire department pumpers is a bright red 1952 Chevrolet. When someone calls for medical help, the phone automatically rings in the homes of 26 volunteer emergency medical technicians.

"They just do what they hope someone will do for them," volunteer EMT Amy Sharp said. "Everybody looks out for everybody here."

On this Sunday morning, many were in church when the call came.

Eight miles up U.S. 40, a charter bus driven by Ronald Zimmerman, 60, was going more than 80 mph when it failed to negotiate a slight turn and plunged down a grassy embankment between a railroad bridge and the road.

At the Wesleyan church, opening prayers were interrupted with the news and people dressed in their Sunday best piled into SUVs and headed toward the scene.

The town's two volunteer ambulances raced to the crash, and five others responded from other counties. In all, 13 volunteer firefighters and 16 volunteer medics went. So did dozens of townspeople, ready to do whatever was needed.

In the mud and cold, they struggled together to bring the badly injured up the steep and slick embankment.

"I didn't see a stretcher leave the bottom of that ravine without five or six people handling it," Townsend said. "And we needed all of them."

Erin Townsend was hardly skilled in signing, which she learned in community college but had used only once. Still, she was able to give some of the frightened students what they were desperate for - a way to communicate.

No one in town would have guessed it, but there were eight people who knew enough sign language to help.

"They weren't very good interpreters," Arwood, 18, said. "But they were good enough."

Erin Townsend, the sheriff's daughter, rushed from church in high heels and a dress. She and the others slogged through the mud in the chaos of the crash site trying to find the injured.

"People would see you signing to someone on a stretcher and they would grab your shoulder so you would talk to them," she said. "I just tried to give them some comfort."

Along the highway, SUVs lined up to transport those who weren't seriously injured the 40 miles to the hospital in Oakley. Those injured the worst were loaded into the ambulances.

Erin Townsend got into one with Kyle and Chester Kuschmider, sons of the assistant football coach.

"One of the boys had a broken hip, but his main concern was his father who had been in the bus, too," she said. "He kept asking where he was, how he was. The closer to the hospital we got the more upset he got. I think the shock was wearing off."

A few ambulances ahead was Chris Hansen, a former military paramedic who is the closest thing there is to a doctor in Wallace County.

He was working frantically on Lory Kuschmider.

"I did CPR on him all the way to Oakley, which is darn far when you're doing that," Hansen said. "He just never regained his pulse."

At the hospital, Kuschmider's boys were anxious for word of their father.

With their hands, they pleaded for Townsend to stay.

With her hands, she could have told them he was dead. But she couldn't bring herself to do it.

"They were so worried about their dad," Townsend said. "It was heartbreaking. I didn't know what to say."

In the faded newspaper clipping from 1967, Lory Kuschmider is pictured along with his football coach at Lutheran West High School in Cleveland.

Hearing-impared in a hearing world, Kuschmider was the school's fullback.

He would go on to graduate from Gallaudet University for the hearing impaired, where he pitched on the baseball team and was a member of the famed "Dirty 30" football team in 1971.

A teacher and overnight dorm supervisor at the Kansas School for the Deaf, he was head track coach as well as an assistant football coach. His wife, also hearing-impaired, teaches there.

To the students, including his two sons, he was a calm presence; someone who was a success despite his disability.

"He was a very humble man and a wonderful coach," said Thompson, the only student on the bus who had marginal speech and hearing. "We wanted to learn from him. He had so much knowledge. It was like he was a football book."

Football is big at the school, a collection of red brick buildings set in the leafy Kansas City suburb of Olathe. The team is a regular contender in the Great Plains School for the Deaf Conference, and was 5-4 after beating the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind in Colorado Springs.

Cheerleaders encourage the team with silent cheers. Players use hand signals and touches to communicate. Instead of yelling, they wave wildly.

"It's the same, but quieter," Thompson said.

Across the street from the school is a football field, not quite level and slightly overgrown. At each end are goalposts, with a small pair of rickety bleachers on each side.

They've always wanted to light the fields, and now they probably will with donations made in Kuschmider's name.

On a recent day at the school, preschoolers played with toys and talked to each other with their hands. In a sixth-grade class, a teacher signed a science lesson.

Most of the 150 students live at the school.

"It's a small school, like a family feeling," said Mike Muszynski, the high school dean. "The deaf community here has a stronger bond."

Muszynski's daughter Michele, a cheerleader, and son Dean, a fullback and defensive back, were on the bus. Michele was airlifted to a Wichita hospital with a neck injury; Dean was bruised and cut.

The emotional scars will take longer to heal.

Eight hundred people turned out for Kuschmider's funeral services. The season's final game was canceled, and the Jackrabbits didn't play in the conference playoffs out of respect for their late coach.

In the school's cafeteria, three tables are filled with cards, flowers and remembrances. The walls are covered with banners bearing sympathy messages from deaf schools in other states.

"I'm sorry. God bless you," one said.

In the hallways at the Kansas School for the Deaf, dorm teacher Connie Ruberry keeps an eye on the sleeping students without her boss and friend, Lory Kuschmider.

"Several boys are still waking up at night thinking of him," Ruberry said.

Still, these are kids who already know what it is like to overcome hurdles.

Some 400 miles across Kansas, the mood is brighter in Sharon Springs, where on a recent morning a worker strung Christmas lights across Main Street and children played noisily on the school playground.

"People showed up to help that didn't know these kids or where they came from. And we could have had 10 times more if we needed it," said Amy Sharp, the EMT. "That's what being in a small community is all about."

A tragedy for a school was a moment of quiet triumph for the people of western Kansas.

"There were so many people who were so nice to us. They didn't have to be but they were," Thompson said. "They're the nicest people I've met in a long time."

Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.