Sheriff: Dispatchers getting calls from every angle

Photo by Jenny Kirk Lyon County dispatcher Mary Gislason was among the many unsung heroes who provided emergency response support after a Lakeview School bus carrying 28 schoolchildren was struck by a van driver who failed to yield at a stop sign 10 years ago. Gislason, now at her job for 35 years, took the 911 call and got emergency teams rolling to the scene of the fatal crash that day.

MARSHALL — Seconds after a minivan driver failed to yield at a stop sign and slammed into a Lakeview bus carrying 28 schoolchildren on Feb. 19, 2008, a 911 call came in to the Lyon County Dispatch Office.

Though her shift typically ended a half-hour prior, dispatcher Mary Gislason was still on duty and took the call at 3:33 p.m. that day.

“Joey (Jensen) was running late, so I was still here,” Gislason said. “Otherwise I would’ve been gone at 3 o’clock. So the two of us were here. Then shortly after it happened, Joe arrived and we had three dispatchers on. That was extremely helpful to have all three of us here.”

Though she didn’t know it at the time, the crash ended up being a fatal one, as four children perished that day. Several others were also critically injured. Guided by more than 20 years experience, Gislason did her best to stay calm as she quickly reached out to emergency services.

“You just need to get the units going and get the responders there,” she said.

Lyon County Sheriff Mark Mather said Gislason, Jensen and a third dispatcher, Terri Lovre, were getting calls from every angle on the day of the bus crash.

“They were getting calls from the public, they were getting calls from the media, they were getting calls from the officers at the scene and everything else,” Mather said. “My hat’s off to them. They’re our first line and I think they did a wonderful job, along with our firefighters and first responders.”

Gislason, who has now been at her job for more than 35 years, has never forgotten the details of that fateful day.

“You remember where you were that day,” Gislason said. “And no matter how bad it was for me, I know it was so much worse for others. I feel for the people involved — the responders that were there and definitely for the families.”

Mather said it takes a special type of person to be a dispatcher.

“You really don’t know what they go through,” he said. “It’s incredible the amount of 911 calls they get every day. And they need to make a determination of who goes — what ambulance, what fire department, what police department. They just quietly do their job and go home to their families.”

While the Lyon County dispatchers continued to field a large volume of calls and coordinate the rescue efforts from inside their office, 26 other agencies were involved in the rescue efforts.

Help arrived from six ambulance services — Cottonwood, North Memorial of Marshall, Minneota and Redwood Falls, Granite Falls, Balaton, Tracy and Clarkfield– and six fire departments — Cottonwood, Marshall, Milroy, Tracy, Ghent and Vesta. Five first responder units — Hanley Falls, Milroy, Wood Lake, Ghent and Vesta — and seven law enforcement agencies — Minnesota State Patrol, Lyon County Sheriff Office, Lyon County Dispatch,Yellow Medicine Sheriff Office as well as the police departments of Granite Falls, Marshall and Upper Sioux — also provided assistance.

“At 9 o’clock that night, there were still officers at the scene and it was 10 degrees below zero with a windchill of 35 below,” Mather said.

“I commend all the people who responded. It’s a tough job. I honestly commend these people.”

Several North Memorial Air Care helicopters also transported victims. Two area hospitals — Avera Marshall Regional Medical Center and Granite Falls Hospital — took in the patients that day.

“We reached out to people because we needed help,” Mather said. “And we had a phenomenal regional response. We had fire departments that arrived at the scene and started extracting patients without regard to which department they were working for, which tells you this was a group thing. I attribute the ability to work together to the exercises and drills that we do here throughout the year.”

Afterward, those involved were left to deal with the tragedy in their own way. Families grieved the loss of their loved ones, while those closest to the survivors grieved for their children’s loss of innocence.

Law enforcement and emergency responders attended debriefings, where they could not only identify strengths and weaknesses, but also begin to process the tragic experience.

“For those who were there, it not only becomes professional, but personal as well,” Mather said. “You deal with the family — I have for years and years. It’s something you never forget.”

Mather said that everyone involved likely processed their experience differently.

“My poor dispatchers, they lived through that, but they never got to see it,” he said. “All they could do is hear it and imagine it and do the best they could with what they had, which at the time — the technology and the radio system — was horrible. They had to sit there and wonder and second-guess themselves.”

While many of the emergency responders would say they were just doing their job that day, Mather said a lot of people went above and beyond in their efforts.

“Everyone gave it 100 percent,” he said. “They’re really unsung heroes.”

Several years after the fatal bus crash, the Lyon County dispatchers received an award for their extremely quiet, composed and effective actions that day.

“I did recognize them publicly with an award from the state years later because they kept it together,” Mather said.

“They really did. There were so many agencies and so much stuff going on. It was just incredible when you really think about it.”