As the investigation into a fatal collision that occurred between a train and a school bus near Larimore, North Dakota, continues, questions as to whether the school bus driver suffered a medical event remain unanswered, and the community is taking steps to recover and support the families impacted by the crash.
On Jan. 5, a school bus about half a mile east of Larimore, bringing students home after school, stopped on train tracks and was struck by a BNSF train, fatally ejecting the bus driver, Max Danner, and a 17-year-old girl, Cassidy Sandstrom. The North Dakota Highway Patrol said the crash injured 12 students.
The bus was traveling northbound on a gravel road at about 3:46 p.m., Lt. Tom Iverson of the North Dakota Highway Patrol told SBF. The bus was on the railway tracks when it was struck on the passenger side by the westbound BNSF Railway train, he added.
The weather conditions at the time of the crash were clear, according to the highway patrol, and the investigation into the crash is ongoing. The highway patrol is the primary investigating agency, assisted by the Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Department.
An indicator that the driver may have experienced a medical event at the time of the crash came from Sandstrom’s parents. Judy and Paul Sandstrom wrote in an email to family and friends that they heard from other students on the bus that their daughter tried to save her fellow students from the oncoming train when she was killed, according to Bakken Today.
The email said Cassidy rushed to the front of the bus when Danner “slumped over” in his chair, with the bus stopped on the railroad tracks, the newspaper reported on Jan. 8. That information conflicts with what highway patrol investigators said at the time of the accident regarding Danner's driving not being impaired by a medical condition, Bakken Today reports. Additionally, among the 12 injured students was Cassidy's brother, Matthew Sandstrom.
However, on Wednesday, while Iverson confirmed to SBF that the autopsy on Danner had been completed, he said the highway patrol was still waiting for the formal conclusion from the medical examiner’s office on whether or not Danner suffered a medical event. He was unable to confirm when the information would be available.
Dr. Roger Abbe, superintendent of Larimore Public School, told SBF the school had a group of counselors with additional training in grief situations come the night of the accident to help students and staff prepare for the next day. Extra counselors and clergy were also on hand the next day.
“We are still keeping a close eye on students and staff,” Abbe said. “We had an extra adult on the buses for two days, partly to comfort students if necessary and partly to be somebody children could ask questions of, if they had any, so they would not distract the drivers. The process is ongoing and we are constantly evaluating needs.”
As it recovers from the tragedy, Larimore Public School is participating in and developed a web page to help promote fundraising efforts for the crash victims, including an account set up by a local bank to take donations from T-shirt sales and an auction, as well as a blood drive.
A fundraiser was held on Wednesday at Pizza Ranch, a regionally-owned restaurant that regularly supports community organizations, letting them collect 20% of the profits on food orders for a few hours in the evening to go toward their cause if they provide servers. More than 600 people attended the benefit, Grand Forks Herald reports.
Meanwhile, Abbe said, the district’s 13 bus drivers are focusing as best as they can on their jobs, and safely transporting students in the harsh North Dakota winter weather.
“They know the challenges of trying to drive with the weather here. Their number one job is the safety of the students, and here in the winter that’s a challenge enough.”