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April 01, 2008  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Van driver charged in fatal bus crash


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COTTONWOOD, Minn. — This rural community in southwestern Minnesota was shaken by a school bus crash in February that took the lives of four students.

In the Feb. 19 accident, authorities said that a minivan ran through a stop sign and onto a highway, where it struck the bus, which rolled over onto a pickup truck.

The bus was carrying 28 students from Lakeview Independent School District 2167. More than a dozen people were injured in the accident and were taken to area hospitals. Three children were killed on impact; one died a few hours later, authorities said.

Motorists at the scene helped school bus driver Dennis Devereaux pull children from the bus before rescue workers arrived.

“I parked my car and called 911 and ran to the school bus, and the driver was handing kids out … as fast as I could take them,” Karen Mahlum told The Independent, a newspaper in nearby Marshall.

Lakeview Superintendent Sheldon Johnson praised Devereaux for “his heroic efforts at the accident scene.”

Devereaux told the Minnesota State Patrol that he saw the minivan approaching, “going way too fast,” and it appeared to go airborne as it crossed railroad tracks before entering the highway. He said that he didn’t have time to brake or speed up to avoid the van.

A witness told investigators that he saw the van go through the stop sign and strike the bus just in front of the dual rear wheels. The impact dislodged the bus’ rear axle.

The National Transportation Safety Board joined the Minnesota State Patrol in investigating the crash.

The minivan driver initially gave investigators a false name and Social Security number. She was later identified as Olga Marina Franco, 24, from Guatemala.

State prosecutors charged Franco with four counts of criminal vehicular homicide, driving without a license and running a stop sign. Arriving at her first court appearance, she was pushed in a wheelchair by a law enforcement official.

Franco was later charged by federal prosecutors with two counts of aggravated identity theft and two counts of false representation of a Social Security number.

After the accident, classes and school activities were canceled, but staff members and grief counselors were on hand at the school building to assist students, families and other staff members. The school also held a student-led prayer service.

“We have suffered a terrible loss to our Lakeview community,” Superintendent Johnson said. “At a time like this, our school becomes a refuge for those in our educational community who need a place to share their grief or confusion, or need to support others in their time of need.”

The children killed in the crash were brothers Hunter and Jesse Javens, 9 and 13, respectively; Emilee Olson, 9; and Reed Stevens, 12. Funeral services were held the following week.

“This is a sad night for Minnesota,” Gov. Tim Pawlenty said after the accident. “It is especially heartbreaking when young lives are lost. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who were killed or injured in this tragic accident.”

The school district and a local bank established a fund to assist the affected families.

On the district’s Website, more than 100 letters of sympathy were posted from people throughout Minnesota and beyond.

“There will come a time in the future — it will be months or years from now — when you will stop yourself, realizing that for the past half-hour or so you hadn’t thought about ‘it’ (your loss and this whole tragedy),” wrote Gail Perrizo, who attended school in Cottonwood. “You may feel guilty at first for letting go of your vigil of grief. Try not to. That is what healing is.”

The Lakeview school district serves Cottonwood, which has a population of about 1,150, and three other smaller towns in the area.

Students are transported on eight school bus routes, which are contracted to Palmer Bus Service.

 


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