Healing after the crash

Survivors overcome injuries —?physical and mental

Photo courtesy of Karen Berg The names of bus driver Dennis Devereaux and the 24 schoolchildren who survived the February 2008 bus crash are listed on one side of a giant heart that is part of the Memorial Garden outside Lakeview School. On the other side are the names of the four students who tragically died that day.

COTTONWOOD — Ten years ago, the Lakeview bus crash that killed four children and injured 14 other students and two adults devastated several small communities in southwest Minnesota — it’s a day few in the area will never forget.

But through the pain, people showed amazing strength as they wrapped their arms around each other and rallied together to get through those dark days.

“You realize it could’ve been your child,” Susanne Lee said. “All four children that we lost were in my third-grade class at one time. I remember just being numb.”

Along with bus driver Dennis Devereaux, 28 schoolchildren were on the bus on Feb. 19, 2008, when it was broadsided by an unlicensed driver who blew through a stop sign at the intersection of Minnesota Highway 23 and Lyon County Road 24 near Cottonwood. Third-grader Emilee Olson, fourth-grader Hunter Javens and seventh-graders Jesse Javens and Reed Stevens died as a result of the crash that day. Several were critically injured.

“I remember telling one of our firemen that he needed to go to the hospital because his son was hurt pretty badly,” Cottonwood Fire Chief Dale Louwagie said. “The bus got hit on the passenger side and it was spun 180 degrees, so it was sitting across the highway. Then it got hit again from the driver’s side (by pickup driver James Hancock who was driving north along Highway 23). So these kids got thrown one way and then thrown another way within seconds of each other.”

Derek Varpness had a broken back, four broken ribs, a severed kidney, a bruised lung and had to have his spleen removed. Sawyer Stevens spent his 11th birthday in intensive care, having suffered broken bones, bruised lungs and severe nerve damage in the crash.

There was talk that neither of the two boys would ever walk again. But somehow, they did. Varpness showed valiant perseverance as he worked his way back onto the wrestling mat and earned a trip to the state tournament a few years later.

“Derek is kind of a miracle,” Louwagie said. “To be able to come back and be able to wrestle at all is amazing.”

While Varpness was a Lakeview student, the school had a wrestling co-op agreement with Marshall High School. Coach Justin Bouwman said the crash ended the season for Varpness, but that he was still very much supported by his teammates and coaches.

“The team embraced him very well,” Bouwman said. “They did many different things to show support. And Derek progressed very well back into wrestling form and ended his senior year qualifying for the individual state tournament.”

Bouwman said Varpness went 1-2 at the state tournament — a major success in his eyes.

“There are not many people who would have wanted to get back on the mat as bad as Derek did with the injuries that he sustained,” Bouwman said.

Sawyer Stevens spent a long time in a wheelchair.

“He’s another one who went through a lot and kind of overcame that,” Louwagie said. “Sawyer was able to play sports later on.”

Recently, Stevens won a $100,000 college scholarship through the Dr. Pepper Tuition Giveaway contest. In an essay, Stevens revealed how he was able to overcome the physical and mental challenges associated with the traumatic experiences he faced as a bus crash survivor. He also talked about how the experience is leading him to a career in the medical field. Then in the finals, a 30-second shoot-out, he fired the most footballs into a target 5 yards away.

“I heard Sawyer is looking to be a pediatric neurosurgeon,” said Dan DeSmet, director at North Memorial Ambulance-Marshall. “It’s refreshing to hear that. You don’t always get to see the positive outcomes. Unfortunately, a lot of times we just see the negative part of it.”

Lyon County Sheriff Mark Mather said it’s really nice when good things happen to people who were once victims.

“When Sawyer graduated from high school, he sent an invitation to everyone who was (involved in the emergency rescue process),” Mather said. “He said that it’s because of our efforts that he’s still here. It was very heartwarming.”

While all of the survivors began to heal physically, there were also mental, emotional and spiritual challenges for them to deal with. Sawyer and Erin Stevens lost their older brother, Reed, that day. Emilee Olson was also a classmate of Erin’s. Brothers Sidnee and Rilee also survived the crash that killed their sister, Emilee.

The Sleiter family had three sons on the bus that day. There were also several other pairs of siblings who survived the crash.

“I remember the kids were crying,” said Karen Mahlum, a nurse who stopped to help. She’d been traveling to Granite Falls when the crash happened in front of her.

“It was so heartbreaking with all those little kids wanting their mommies and daddies,” Mahlum said. “Everything was so chaotic. How do you get through something like that?”

Mahlum recalls feeling helpless when one of the boys she helped out of the bus had glass in his eyes.

“I got him to the ground, but what can you do for him?” she asked. “It was just sad to think people lost children and to see those innocent kids hurt by something so foolish.”

Anna Meyer was a preschool student who was on the bus that crashed in February 2008. Today, she’s a freshman at Lakeview School.

“I was on the bus that day and I landed on the bus driver,” Meyer said. “I hit my head and had to go to the hospital.”

Trinity Kirckof was in kindergarten 10 years ago.

“I hurt my knee,” said Kirckof, now a Lakeview sophomore.

In talking with the two young survivors this past week, they both said they felt very much supported by their school and community during the healing process.

“I’m kind of getting over it,” Kirckof said.

Many who were at the scene 10 years ago or had connections with those involved have wondered how the survivors are. The Independent attempted to reach out to at least a third of the survivors, but one by one, they shied away from speaking out publicly.

“I think it is right under the surface for many of them,” Lee said.

A neighbor who knew some of the children who died said she doesn’t blame the survivors for not wanting to revisit those memories.

“I know everybody would like to know how they’re doing, whether they’re going to college and whatnot, but I understand if they don’t want to be in the spotlight,” said the neighbor, who wished to remain anonymous. “It’s got to be so tough. Thankfully, the school has supported them all so well.”

Traci Olson, whose 9-year-old daughter Emilee died in the bus crash, also praised the school district and community for helping the families in the aftermath. While grieving, she and her husband, Charlie Olson, also tended to the immediate needs of their sons, Sidnee and Rilee.

“My oldest son was taken to Sioux Falls (S.D.),” she said. “He had a broken hand and glass in his eyes. They did surgery the first day and we came home the next day. My youngest son was black and blue. For everything that happened, it was very minor.”

Traci Olson said her children were really supported by their classmates, school personnel and beyond.

“I can’t say enough for our school, the kids and the caring environment it is,” she said. “And this is an amazing community. Until you’ve been touched by it and lived by it, you don’t understand it. It’s a story of a community that wrapped its arms around each other and is always going to be there for you. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”