(Larimore, North Dakota – January 5, 2015)
The post-Christmas break re-opening of schools had barely begun Monday at 3:29 P.M. when tragedy of the most horrible form struck the community of Larimore, ND, about 25 miles west of Grand Forks, as a school bus loaded with 13 students and being driven by a 62-year-old shop/agriculture teacher was struck at the dangerous and unguarded BNSF railroad crossing of 36th Street Northwest by a BNSF freight train hauling nothing but empty container and trailer flat cars.
The driver, veteran teacher, bus driver and farmer Max Danner, and an as-yet unidentified 17-year-old female senior student, died when they were ejected from the northbound bus as the westbound train emerged from behind a large, trackside grove of trees and struck the bus near the front door at the crossing equipped solely with passive railroad cross-buck and highway stop signs. North Dakota Highway Patrol Lt. Troy Hischer said that evidence at the scene indicated that the bus driver was in the process of stopping his vehicle when the collision occurred on the gravel-surfaced road.
There was no active protection at the 36th Street Crossing, such as lights and gates. It is virtually certain that if equipped with lights and gates this accident and the four preceding accidents would not have happened. Both BNSF and Operation Lifesaver know that lights and gates are the most effective type of protection at railroad crossings. Studies that have been conducted over fifty years ago confirm that lights and gates offer the ability to drastically reduce the number of vehicle/train accidents by as much as 96%.
The dangerous aspect of the crossing was no mystery to the railroad, as the intersection was the site of the fatality of a 63-year-old male driver when his car was struck by a BNSF train consisting of two locomotives and 21 cars traveling at 45 miles per hour the early afternoon of October 11, 2009.
According to information supplied to the Federal Railroad Administration in regard to the 36th Street NW/BNSF crossing, a daily average of five BNSF freight and Amtrak passenger trains operate through the rail corridor at a top allowable speed of 79 mph.
Several of the 12 surviving students, ranging in grades from kindergarten to 12th, were also ejected in the collision. All 12 were transported to Altru Hospital in Grand Forks, ND via ground ambulances.
Altru Health System Chief Operating Officer Brad Wehe said that one student had been treated and released, another six had been admitted, and the remainder , some of whom were suffering from multiple and possibly life-threatening injuries, had been transferred to unspecified “regional facilities for a higher level of care.”
“It’s a hell of a tragedy” local farmer Eddy Larson, who had known the deceased bus driver for two decades, told news media representatives. “He was a good friend. My kids all had him in school.”
Karyn Hendrickson, a resident whose house is just south of the crossing, said the bus had just dropped off her elementary school student daughter.
“Anytime you have children involved like this, it’s pretty chaotic,” described Lt. Hischer.
Outside temperature hovered around zero as anxious parents and school officials, including Larimore Elementary School Principal Leslie Wiegandt, Supt. of Schools Roger Abbe and school board members, flocked to the scene, and many emerged teary-eyed and distraught from the tragic accident site. All school events were cancelled and a 7:30 P.M. meeting for school officials, from which the news media was barred, was called for 7:30 P.M. Other than the announcement of availability of counselors for grieving students and faculty at school planned for Tuesday, there was no comment forthcoming from school sources.
Kittery Wakefield, a classmate of the deceased student and a clerk at a local gas station, said people had been coming into the facility to discuss the tragedy.
Larimore Mayor and 38-year veteran volunteer firefighter Ray Fegter struggled with finding the proper words to describe the community’s feelings in regard to the accident. “And you think ‘I hope it never happens here.’ Well, today it did. It’ll take a few days and who knows how many months for the community to recover from this,” he said, summing it up with “It’ll be a memory we wish we never had.”