‘It was a bad day’

Rescue workers recall ‘chaos’ under frigid conditions

File photo Along with a large number of other emergency responders from the area, Marshall Fire Chief Marc Klaith, center, is in rescue mode at the scene of the Lakeview School bus crash on Feb. 19, 2008, near Cottonwood. Four children died as a result of the crash and 14 others were injured.

COTTONWOOD — It’s been 10 years since the Lakeview bus crash, but the memories are still fresh for many who were impacted both personally and professionally by the tragedy.

Four innocent lives were lost that day, causing three families to suffer the worst pain imaginable. For them and countless others, life has never been the same.

“It was probably one of the worst days we’ve had in Lyon County for a long time,” Marshall Fire Chief Marc Klaith said. “It was a bad day.”

Lakeview bus driver Dennis Devereaux was transporting 28 schoolchildren on Feb 19, 2008, when a minivan driver blew through a stop sign and broadsided the bus, which then struck and tipped over onto a pickup driven by James Hancock.

“I was headed toward Granite (Falls) and the bus was headed toward Marshall,” Karen Mahlum said. “I saw the bus coming and all of a sudden I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, the bus tipped over.’ I didn’t see the car hit the bus, but there was this big dust storm where the bus was out of sight for a little bit. I think I was the first one to call 911.”

Mahlum, a registered nurse, quickly pulled over to the side of the road and got out of her car.

“The bus driver was hollering for somebody to help,” she said. “There was an emergency door on the top of the bus and he had punched that out. He could reach some of the kids, so he just started handing kids out the hatch to me. It was so much chaos and crying. It was so awful.”

Mahlum remembers Devereaux frantically saying they needed to get the kids out of the bus. You could smell the gas and oil and see it dripping all over, she added.

“He said, ‘We have to get these kids out of here,’ “ Mahlum said. “I was able to take the kids from him and get them down on the ground. And sometimes, they were coming really fast.”

At first, there was nowhere for the children to go and they were forced to endure the extremely frigid conditions. According to the National Weather Service, it was 10 degrees that day with a windchill making it feel minus 12.

“A lot of the kids must’ve taken their coats off on the bus because many of them didn’t have their coats on and some of the kids didn’t have shoes on,” Mahlum said. “Until the rescue squad came, we just got the kids out of the bus, but there was no place for them to go.”

Mahlum said it seemed like a long time until more help arrived. In reality, rescue workers deployed to the scene very quickly.

“The call came in at 3:33 p.m.” Lyon County Sheriff Mark Mather said. “Then our office paged out the Cottonwood Fire and Ambulance to the crash. Also at that time, they would’ve paged multiple agencies because of the fact that we knew what we had there — when you see a scene like that, it sends shivers down your spine. I think back to that day and I remember seeing the faces of the first responders, firefighters and even my deputies. You just know, by hearing their voices and seeing their faces, that it’s really bad.”

Mather said the first North Memorial Air Care helicopter landed at the scene at 3:50 p.m.

“At 3:55 p.m., North Memorial asked for three additional helicopters and they were en route,” he said. “A minute later, the Cottonwood EMS (emergency medical services) was en route to the Marshall hospital with the first three patients.”

Mather recalls how courageously the rescue personnel worked in the below-zero weather conditions.

“By 6 o’clock that night, the temperature was zero and the windchill was 25 degrees below,” Mather said. “It was tough conditions, but people braved them. You look at it later and realize that you have all these people who are volunteers who go out to these horrific scenes. Our deputies are paid, obviously, but we all have children. We know the horror that everyone had that day. For everyone to put aside their personal feelings and do their job– and do the best we can — it’s amazing.”

Cottonwood Fire Chief Dale Louwagie was at home when he got the page.

“I responded right to the scene,” he said. “There were a few bystanders who were helping. I remember one guy who kept saying they need more backboards. I knew we had some at the fire hall, so I went back to get some. I started calling for other fire departments and ambulances to come because I knew we were going to need a lot of help.”

When Louwagie got back to the crash site, Klaith was already there.

“I was out there delivering for Henle Printing Company and I pulled up to an intersection and one of the Cottonwood firemen said I needed to get up there right away because there was a bad accident,” Klaith said. “There are a lot of details that I remember to this day — details that will never go away.”

Not being able to save 9-year-old Emilee Olson, 12-year-old Reed Stevens and brothers Hunter Javens, 9, and Jesse Javens, 13, was soul-crushing for everyone on the scene that day.

“(As firefighters, first responders and other emergency personnel) we have a mentality that we can fix everything,” Klaith said. “Sometimes it’s out of our hands, but you still feel like you’re letting the public down.”

Mahlum said that when more and more people started arriving, they were able to get the kids who were standing out in the cold put into vehicles so they could stay warm.

“They called for (another) school bus, but before that, emergency people were putting kids in cars of people who had come along,” she said.

Rescue workers struggled, but finally got the back door of the bus open.

“Then it was a scramble to get into the bus to see who they can save,” Mahlum said. “There were these ladies on the ambulance squads who have dresses and high heels on because they had been at work. The bus is tipped on its side and they’re trying to get inside. You can’t even imagine it.”

Director Dan DeSmet said North Memorial Ambulance had multiple trucks at the scene. By chance, they had several more trucks available because they had been doing a driving recertification.

“It was clear and sunny but really cold and windy,” DeSmet said. “The call came in as a bus accident. Cottonwood requested assistance from us and from other area agencies. We were lucky to have had a couple extra trucks out from the metro. We did transport multiple patients to the (Marshall) hospital.”

While North Memorial has responded to various minor bus accidents, DeSmet said nothing compared to Lakeview bus crash.

“Anytime you have that many patients and that many folks who are hurt, it taxes the emergency and public system,” he said. “It was such a large incident. You can practice time and time again, but until something like this occurs, you never know how it’ll play out. But everyone came together and worked very well. It speaks to the training that we do with area first responders.”

On that day, 27 different emergency agencies or organizations were part of the rescue efforts.

“We’ve never had an event that required that much manpower,” Louwagie said. “But everyone worked together really well.”

DeSmet said it was truly a team effort.

“That’s what is so remarkable about the out-state here,” DeSmet said.

Klaith said at least a hundred emergency personnel were on the scene.

“Dale Louwagie is a friend of mine,” he said. “He was the man in charge and did a wonderful job. It was a devastating day, but there were a lot of heroes that day, too.”

Mahlum called the emergency responders a wonderful bunch of people.

“They put so much order to the chaos,” she said.

“They do what they’re trained to do. It’s pretty amazing for these small towns to have that. They worked so well under pressure.”

Mahlum said Devereaux’s fast and determined actions were also remarkable.

“His main concern was the kids,” Mahlum said. “Kudos to him for everything he did.”

Pinned in his pickup truck that ended up getting wedged under the bus, James Hancock also received praise from several emergency responders.

“(James Hancock) was the last person who got taken out,” Klaith said. “He’s another hero because it took us awhile to get him out. I will never forget that. He wanted to make sure everybody else was getting taken care of. It shows that Minnesota nice with him being very patient.”

As rescue workers focused on getting medical help to the victims, State Patrol began reconstruction of the collisions as well as the investigation process. Mather said the Lyon County Sheriff’s Office set up the initial command centers — one at the scene and one at Lakeview School.

“I remember walking into that school and the parents waiting to hear something about their children,” Mather said.

“It was horrible. Then to see these people today, your heart goes out to them. It’s got to be the worst thing in the world to lose a child.”

While he said it pales in comparison to the pain others felt, Klaith has a physical reminder of that day. Having been off-duty 10 years ago, he didn’t have the proper winter gear on. After his ear kept bothering him for a couple of days following the crash, Klaith said he went to the doctor.

“Dr. Jill Vroman said I got frostbite,” he said. “And this is how people are in southwest Minnesota — she said, ‘There’s no charge for this today. I got this.’ Oftentimes, it’s the little things that make people’s lives a little bit better.”

In the days after the tragedy, Klaith said the only thing people in southwest Minnesota could do was try to come together as one big family and help each other heal.

“It touched everybody,” Klaith said. “I think when you have a tragedy like this, the best in people come out. I saw a lot of good. And it wasn’t just the day after or weeks after. It’s still, years later. People are there for you. It’s incredible.”