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December 1, 2002

Tiny town, big hearts

From: Henderson Gleaner, KY - 1 Dec, 2002

When bus carrying deaf football team crashes, caring breaks down communication barriers

By TIM DAHLBERG Associated Press writer
December 1, 2002

SHARON SPRINGS, Kan. - As their bus barreled through the rain and fog of a late October morning, Tyler Thompson and his teammates settled in for a long trip across Kansas.

Some slept, while others chatted about the day before when the Jackrabbits beat a Colorado football team, 72-14. That night, they had gone to the school's homecoming dance, where they eyed the girls and enjoyed the outing.

A few rows away, senior captain Chuck Arwood was trying to read a book, but felt uneasy. The bus seemed to be going awfully fast, and Arwood grew increasingly nervous as it swayed back and forth across the prairie of western Kansas.

Suddenly, Arwood could feel the bus skidding sideways and saw dirt flying on the windows. Arwood held onto 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, crushing the roof and tossing some students into a wet ravine.

Cold, scared and confused, some began to panic.

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

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.

"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, a county seat in the middle of far western Kansas.

The Strand Theater on Main Street shows movies on Friday and Saturday nights, and hunting season usually brings sportsmen eager to shoot some of the deer that wander through town or pheasants in the fields.

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," said Townsend.

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 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 60-year-old Ronald Zimmerman was going more than 80 mph when it failed to negotiate a slight turn and plunged down a grassy embankment.

Opening prayers were interrupted with the news. People dressed in their Sunday best piled into SUVs and headed to 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 ordinary townspeople.

"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."

Football is big at the Kansas School for the Deaf, a collection of red brick buildings set in a 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 that Saturday afternoon.

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

The Kansas School for the Deaf has 150 students. Most live at the school. It's hard being away from family, but they find comfort among others who share their disability.

"It's 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, were on the bus. Michele was airlifted to a Wichita hospital for a neck injury. Dean suffered bruises and cuts.

Both have recovered physically, but the emotional scars will take longer.

"My son is still angry and feeling guilty that he wasn't one of them hurt," Muszynski said.

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

Some 400 miles across Kansas, the mood is brighter in Sharon Springs. 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, an 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 community of Sharon Springs.

"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."

© 2001 The E.W. Scripps Co.