Tough discussion on Lakeview school bus crash

The discussion inside the Independent conference room was lively at times. But the one statement made by a reporter stood out the most to me.

“These are our friends and our neighbors.”

The reporter, like everybody else in the room, was concerned how the staff would treat a scheduled series recalling the Feb. 19, 2008, crash involving a school bus carrying 28 Lakeview School students. Four students were killed and 14 injured.

Newspaper newsrooms tend to go through a lot of turnover — especially during a 10-year timespan. But half of our staff members vividly recall the crash. Reporter Deb Gau rushed to the hospital with her camera and notebook. News Editor Cindy Votruba and copy editor Karin Elton also remember that fateful day. Reporter Jenny Kirk was a sports reporter at the time.

However, I was hired as editor just a year ago. I had no knowledge of the Lakeview tragedy. And Gregory Orear has only been publisher for less than a year.

But it was Orear who noticed something interesting in an article published in the Independent in early December. A Lakeview High School alumnus Sawyer Stevens winning a $100,000 college scholarship in the Dr. Pepper Tuition giveaway during halftime at the Big Ten Championship football game in Indianapolis.

One paragraph jumped out at Orear:

“Stevens said his own life experiences have helped shape his goal to make other people’s lives better. Stevens was severely injured in the school bus crash that took the lives of four Lakeview students in 2008. Sawyer’s brother Reed Stevens was killed in the crash.”

“That was 10 years ago,” Orear said. He suggested the staff work on a series of articles recalling the tragedy, being it would be a 10-year anniversary.

So the staff started planning the series. Assignments were divided among the three reporters and Copy Editor Karin Elton. At first, the reporters struggled to find people connected to the tragedy one way or another who were willing to talk. Isaackson discovered the immediate families of the children who perished were not ready to share their thoughts. Kirk came across the same kind of reluctance among survivors.

Gau also experienced roadblocks in tracking down the whereabouts of the illegal immigrant driver who was convicted of causing the crash. Olga Marina Franco del Cid was driving the minivan that slammed into the bus.

But persistence paid off. The staff talked to teachers, friends and distant family members. Some of the accounts were graphic. Some were heartbreaking. Some were shocking. Some educational.

I recall shuffling through the nearly 100 photos on file from that crash scene and at the hospital. I paused for a few minutes in disbelief after coming across the photo showing the front of the pickup truck literally sucked into the middle of the bus. I needed not to go any further to understand the magnitude of the crash and why some students perished.

One particular photo was also striking to me. It was a photo of current Marshall Fire Chief Marc Klaith walking away from the bus. My eyes were drawn to the look in his face. I can only imagine what was going through his mind.

There was a lot of concern expressed by several staff members on how to treat the accounts and what photos should be used or not used. A life-long Marshall area resident, Kirk was concerned about using some of the accounts and how they would be perceived by her own friends and neighbors who have connections to the tragedy.

It was a tough discussion.

But now it’s time to publish the accounts. The first stories in the week-long series will be published Monday, the 10-year anniversary of the bus crash. We understand some readers may not appreciate stirring up some painful memories. But we believe history should not be ignored. Lessons can be learned from history, no matter how painful.

We provided some updated information on Franco’s current status legally and with immigration officials. We also show how some of the students who survived are living successful lives, such as Sawyer Stevens. And point out some of the heroes who acted without hesitation.

But most of all, you can be assured that a lot of newsroom thought went into each story. After all, the people involved in the bus crash tragedy are “our friends and our family.”

You can follow Mike Lamb at Twitter@indymlamb