Independent editor, reporter lived in Cottonwood, knew children

MARSHALL — There are certain days that you remember from beginning to end — it could be the day someone close to you died. It could be 9-11, the Challenger explosion, the day Kennedy was killed or Pearl Harbor.

Feb. 19, 2008, is one of those days for people who live in southwestern Minnesota.

Twenty-eight students attending Lakeview School District were headed home in a school bus on state Highway 23 when suddenly a van sped past a side road stop sign. It crashed into the side of the bus, which then landed on a truck.

Hunter Javens, 9, of Cottonwood, his 13-year-old brother Jesse Javens, Emilee Olson, 9, of Cottonwood, and Reed Stevens, 12, of Marshall were killed in the crash. At least 14 others were injured including the driver of the van and the pickup truck.

The reporters and editorial staff who covered the tragedy were stunned along with the rest of southwestern Minnesota, but nevertheless they had to do their job.

Dana Yost was the editor of the Independent from 1999-2008, a Minneota native and the Independent from 1999-2008, a Minneota native and Cottonwood resident. His wife, Rae Kruger, was the lead reporter in 2008. The loss of four children from a small community was devastating to all and Yost and Kruger were no different.

“Personally, the day was pretty bad for Rae and me,” Yost said. “We’d lived in Cottonwood for about 15 years by then. Our son had graduated from Lakeview High School only two years before. We knew all four of the students who were killed, many of those who were hurt, all of the families. We knew the bus driver. We also were part of the community, had made our home there, and felt the shock and hurt like everyone else. There were times during the day when you just wanted to drop it all and go back to Cottonwood and be among your friends and neighbors.”

On Feb. 19 Kruger had planned to be indoors that day and just cover a regular meeting of the hospital board. She wore light outer clothing despite the single-digit temperatures forecast for that day.

After hearing the alert on the police scanner, which is always kept on in the newsroom, Yost sprang to action.

“Within a few minutes after the first scanner reports, you knew the day was going to be a big one — difficult, upending many things at the newspaper, changing lives for many affected by the crash,” said Yost. “A big day and a very hard day.”

The bus crash quickly became a major news story nationally. The Independent front office staff funneled call after call to Yost who was slammed with local, state and national requests for photos and information.

“As the editor, I had to make several quick decisions, then several others as the day went on that helped shape the Independent’s coverage,” he said. “Plus it didn’t take long before we were inundated with phone calls and emails from TV stations and newspapers throughout the region and around the country, all asking for information, photos and video — as quickly as they could have it. So you’re trying to sort through your own newspaper’s plans and coverage, and respond to these national media requests.”

Despite his personal feelings, Yost continued to handle the multiple media queries throughout the day while directing the newsroom staff.

“We had obligations to our readers, who deserved thorough and accurate coverage of one of the biggest news stories the Independent’s coverage area has ever faced,” Yost said. “That meant writing and editing difficult stories, planning publication of the paper with professionalism — and always with an eye on our print deadline.”

As more information was released by the police, the story took on even more national significance — “the identity of the driver of the van pushed the crash into the national debate over immigration,” Yost said. The driver was first identified as Alianiss Nunez Morales, then as Olga Franco from Guatemala. She was later identified as Olga Franco del Cid.

It was a news story, but there were hurting people behind the headlines.

“We had obligations to the families of the victims and the communities to be respectful and sensitive, aware of their grief,” Yost said. “But while being aware of that, we also couldn’t shy away from the reality of this being a major story, and what we were writing had to be complete for that day’s news and, in some regard, for the historical record. But could we do that in a way that also remembered that the students on the bus were not just names and numbers passed around the country, but were real boys and girls, sons and daughters — could we acknowledge who they were and what the loss of them meant?”

At the scene, Kruger was working diligently to get the information out to the public.

“(Kruger) got there even before some of the emergency responders and would stay there the whole rest of the day and much of the night,” Yost said. “She provided most if not all of the photos that we used and that were used nationally, and most of the copy, too — observing the scene, interviewing law enforcement, emergency responders, passing motorists who had stopped and helped remove kids from the bus.”

Kruger was underprepared in dressing for the freezing temperatures as well the photographic equipment that was needed.

“She was out there in the cold, with only that small camera at first,” Yost said, “so we faced some logistics issues. We figured out ways to relay a bigger camera, more camera memory cards, a heavier coat and food to Rae. One of our young sports reporters, Stephen Wiblemo, drove toward the site. Of course, it was blocked off more and he couldn’t drive very close. So he walked a long way in the cold, carrying that stuff to Rae and coming back with the photo memory cards she’d already used. That way we could start to download photos, get some on our website and send them to the AP (The Associated Press) as quickly as we could.”

From the scene, Kruger dictated information to the newsroom on her cellphone.

“For quite a while, Rae called in information to the newsroom, dictating it over the phone like they did in the old days of journalism,” Yost said. “When she finally was able to come back to the office, she wrote more complete stories. Not an easy day for her at all, watching people she knew respond to a very tragic event, watching the emotions go through those responders, knowing there were Lakeview students on the bus, trying to put together information that was available in fragments or that law enforcement needed time itself to determine. “

Reporter Deb Gau went to the hospital to see if she could interview family members or find information on conditions of the injured.

The newsroom staff worked on the Lakeview story plus the regular news and features for the next day’s paper. In 2008, the Independent still had a mail room and printing press.

“In addition to the regular two-section paper, we published a four-page, full-color wrap that literally wrapped around the rest of the paper and became our front page,” Yost said. “That doesn’t happen on the fly, but takes coordination between several departments, including our pre-press, press and mailroom crews. A big news day doesn’t only affect the day in the newsroom, but, at a small paper, it changes the work day for everyone.”

Social media was in its infancy in 2008, but it was used by those at the scene, rightly or wrongly.

“This was the first time I can really remember that social media started to get ahead of the journalists and law enforcement,” said Yost. “It was frustrating, especially when it came to victims on the bus and their families. Some people at the crash site apparently sent text messages to their friends or family, with names of the victims and other information. You know how that goes: those friends and family texted more people, and then more people. Before long, names of victims were posted on Facebook, which was still pretty new then. Some of this happened before identities were officially confirmed, before families were officially notified. I don’t even dare imagine how fast or irresponsibly information would fly today, with Facebook used by so many people, plus with Twitter, Instagram, almost everyone with smart phones. It was irresponsible, but also a sign of what was to come: the big changes in how news is gathered and told, how law enforcement and other emergency responders have to be more aware of getting correct information to the public much more quickly.”

Part of the value of professional journalism is getting the story correct, Yost said.

“Part of being accurate and thorough is that you want to get facts out there — online and in print — to quell or correct rumors and speculation that were moving pretty fast,” Yost said.

“Different rumors about the driver, whether her boyfriend was in the van with her, etc. Rumors about victims. We wanted to be accurate, so did law enforcement. It takes time, with some information, to verify it or, in the case of a fatality, to notify family. You take that time to get it right, to be sensitive.”