Four children dead, cause of bus crash still unclear

Reading the names
Minnesota State Patrol Lt. Mark Peterson, reading the names of the bus accident victims.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

The four people killed were students in the Lakeview School District, headquartered in the town of Cottonwood. The bus accident happened at the end of the school day as the trip home began.

Among those killed were two brothers from Cottonwood, Hunter Javens, 9, and his 13-year-old brother Jesse Javens. Also killed was Emilee Olson, 9, of Cottonwood, and Reed Stevens, 12, of Marshall.

Bus crash scene
Rescue workers attend the wounded.
Photo courtesy of Marshall Independent

Their names were released during an afternoon news briefing at a church in Cottonwood.

Emilee's mother, Traci, is a physical education teacher at the school. Reed's mother, Kandy, is a former teacher. Lakeview Schools Superintendent Sheldon Johnson read a message from Kandy Stevens.

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"She wants people to know that Reed was a young man who loved God, his country and his family," said Johnson. "And he also loved his football family. We know that he is with the Lord, and we ask all parents to give their kids an extra hug, tonight and every night."

Even though classes were canceled, Johnson said the school has been open all day with grief counselors on hand to help students and others deal with the tragedy.

Rescuing victims
Workers try to remove passengers from a school bus that rolled over on Highway 23 near Cottonwood, Minn.
Photo courtesy of Marshall Indpendent

Johnson said the response to the deaths has been overwhelming, with offers of help coming in from the state, the nation and even other parts of the world. He said a school bus driver from Japan called to voice support.

Ten people are still hospitalized with injuries suffered in the collision. One person is in critical condition, the rest are listed as fair or stable.

A van approaching from the right on a county road broadsided the school bus at an intersection as the bus traveled south on State Highway 23. The bus then rolled on its side, and came to rest draped across the hood and cab of a pickup truck.

The school bus driver was Dennis Deveraux, 52, of Cottonwood. The driver of the van was Alianiss Morales, 23, from the town of Minneota. The pickup driver was James Hancock, 45, from Marshall.

KSTP-TV reported that Morales didn't have a valid license. The State Patrol declined to confirm the report. The Marshall Independent, citing court records, reported that Morales had pleaded guilty in Chippewa County in 2006 to driving without a valid license.

Rescue workers place a bus crash victim on to an ambulance helicopter.
Photo courtesy of Marshall Indpendent

Hancock told the Star Tribune that he saw the van run the stop sign before the accident.

"I saw the maroon van run a stop sign, it blew over the railroad tracks and hit the bus, sending it sliding into me," Hancock told the newspaper from his hospital bed in Sioux Falls, S.D. "The next thing I knew, they were hauling kids out and it was chaos."

Because of the fatalities, the Minnesota State Patrol's Lt. Brian West said a crash investigator from the National Transportation Safety Board will help out with the reconstruction of the accident.

"Because of the seriousness of the crash, we will have a complete file that'll be forwarded to the Lyon County Attorney's office for review," said West.

"We ask all parents to give their kids an extra hug, tonight and every night."

West said it's not known when the accident investigation will conclude.

The four fatalities and many injuries in the Cottonwood accident make this one of the most serious school bus collisions in state history. The State Patrol's Lt. Mark Peterson said, however, it should not cast doubt on the safety of the state's school bus system.

"Your children are markedly safer, eight times safer, driving in a school bus to school than they are if you personally drive them to school," said Peterson. "So it is still a safe and effective means of travel for our children."

The Cottonwood crash was the deadliest since at least 1991. The state Office of Traffic Safety said three children were killed in a 1997 crash in Monticello. School bus crashes in 1996 and 2002 each killed three people, but none of the dead were on the buses.

The Office of Traffic Safety said it couldn't immediately provide data before 1991.

Lakeview has about 585 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, serving Cottonwood and the nearby town of Wood Lake. The area is about 140 miles west of Minneapolis.

Members of the media weren't allowed into the school Wednesday. Parents and students who went described a moving scene, as "Amazing Grace" was sung and teenagers spontaneously gathered in a circle to pray.

Mary Taylor, who attended the meeting with her 17-year-old son Miles, said she was struck by "the utter silence" when she first entered the building.

"No one knows what to do or say," she said.

Taylor said she knows all of the victims' families. "They're very nice people, salt of the earth, decent religious people."

Another parent, Brenda Doom, said the accident was simply unbelievable.

"You see it on the TV in other places, then all of a sudden you look at the TV and it's us."

Classes resume Thursday in the Lakeview School District. Officials say it's important that students return to a familiar setting to grieve together.