Book publishing effort recalls 1997 Monticello bus crash

Twenty years ago today, the community of Monticello banded together after an early morning crash between a Hoglund Transportation school bus and a gravel truck killed three Pinewood elementary students and seriously injured others.

The April 10, 1997, crash at the intersection of County Road 39 and County Road 11 also killed the driver of the truck.

Lost that day were fourth-grade students Kristine Burzinski, Christopher Korblick, and Andrew Heberling, John Doyle, 42, Zimmerman, the driver of the gravel truck, died at the scene.

Monticello resident Kari Hoglund Kounkel believes that there are moments that change a community’s collective consciousness. The day of the bus crash plunged the community into deep grief, she says.

Two decades later, that grief remained a force in Kounkel’s life, prompting her to write “Unspoken Sorrow – Whispers From A Broken Heart,” a first-person perspective that looks back upon that tragic day.

Kounkel hopes her book will resonate with people who work in school transportation, those who are in recovery, and people who long to understand redemption. The book is available for purchase online on Amazon.

After leaving locally owned Hoglund Transportation in 2014, Kounkel started a consulting business.

She has worked with companies needing financial assistance and reviewed practices for transportation departments.

For the last two years, Kounkel has been developing a school transportation application that is currently in the pilot-testing stage.

In the book’s preface, Kounkel writes, “I certainly hope my story will resonate with others who make decisions about student safety, as well as those who’ve experienced their own tragic events. It is disheartening to know that in all the intervening years school bus safety statistics have not changed substantially and that after every crash, the media writes the exact same headlines, while state and federal legislators author the exact same pieces of legislation.”

Kounkel says the survivors and all the families involved in the tragic bus crash 20 years ago have been in her thoughts and prayers every day.

“You exhibited dignity and courage through the most horrific of times for your families,” she writes to survivors and their families. “You offered grace to my family and me, to our employees, and to our community.”

Kounkel says there was no place for her grief 20 years ago. “It took me years to realize it wasn’t going to dissipate until I let it wash through me, until I truly grieved,” she writes. “My fear manifested in my ever-increasing efforts to control the world around me, to impose order on what felt so frighteningly out of control after the crash, and to perfect the completely imperfect.”

Three years ago, Kounkel’s life fell apart horrifically, which she also addresses in the book, and, recognizing her complete inability to control anything, she fell on her knees. In so doing, she said, “I found myself, and I found my mission, and I found my new career path,” she says.

The following first-chapter excerpt from Kounkel’s book details the events of April 10, 1997, and offers additional insight into the events that occurred the days immediately after the accident.

The first half of that chapter, “Facts and Circumstances,” is published here in its entirety.

In the Beginning

The story of the April 10 Minnesota school bus crash was first told in community and national papers in the days and weeks after it occurred.

As time passes, all stories become less newsworthy, and our crash was no exception.

Eventually we were left with retrospectives published periodically by our local paper, the Monticello Times. For me, though, the story continued to grip me, and may my whole life.

I wrote about it on my blog, www.AndSoIRise.blogspot.com, 12 years after it occurred, in a post titled “We Come to Tell a Story.”

This is an excerpt:

I’ve spent the last month writing a story. This one’s a true story. It’s a story I should have finished writing long ago, but when I tried… well, the words wouldn’t come, or they’d come in a jumbled heap, or they’d flow violently – much like water over one of those gorgeous Hawaiian waterfalls that actually drown you when you get too close.

I started writing this story more than 83 times. I know because that’s how many documents I deleted even after crumpling and tossing countless scraps of paper.

This month I wrote the story about how completely… profoundly… and perfectly I was impacted by the fatal 1997 school bus accident involving one of our school buses and our community’s students.

In all the years since that accident, I have never understood my intense grief. I could understand feeling bad – what happened was sad and affected every person in our community. What I couldn’t understand was my complete inability to function normally.

I wrote about what happened that morning and in subsequent days. I explained with brutal rawness how that accident made me feel. I wrote things I never said to myself, even in the darkest hours of night. I wrote about images and memories that tortured me for years.

I wrote about my complete and total failure to find a reason or a fault for the accident. I wrote about not understanding how sometimes bad things just happen.

I wrote and rewrote until that story was a flawless and true account of what I lived for 11 years. And, with every word burned on my heart, I destroyed my story… and somehow, I found myself.

I thought that was the end of it, but I never stopped writing about the crash. For a long time I had a Word document that contained random and free-ranging thoughts. Eventually I started to form a narrative of sorts. Then I sold my house and came across an old box of newspapers and clippings while packing. I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away.

Months later I pulled out those old papers to fact check my ruminations against the published information. I had old copies of the Monticello Times, the St. Cloud Times, the Star Tribune, and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Other clips had poured into our office from the L.A. Times, school bus industry publications, and papers with very tiny circulations, and I found them all in my box. All the papers carried the same stories, the journalists wrote the same things, quoted the same people, and ran the same photos. And nothing contradicted anything I had written.

Thursday, April 10, 1997
It was a clear and dry, but cold day. Hoglund Bus 63, driven by Briita Lorentz, had made several stops on her elementary route. It was her second route of the day.

The bus approached the intersection of County Road 39 and County Road 11 just west of Monticello, Minnesota, traveling 45 miles per hour and carrying 13 elementary-age students.

The April 17, 1997, edition of the Monticello Times featured front-page coverage of the bus crash, which had occured the previous week. The newspaper had six full pages of photos and news stories (Monticello Times File Photo)
The April 17, 1997, edition of the Monticello Times featured front-page coverage of the bus crash, which had occured the previous week. The newspaper had six full pages of photos and news stories (Monticello Times File Photo)

Two gravel trucks approached the intersection from the south, and were traveling approximately 55 miles per hour.

Failing to yield for the stop sign, the first truck entered the intersection. Though there were heavy skid marks on the pavement, there is no indication that the driver of the truck, John (Jack) Doyle, took action to avoid the collision.

The bus driver’s first full view of the truck was less than one second prior to impact, though students sitting behind her had a different perspective and could tell the truck wasn’t slowing to stop.

As the truck crossed the intersection, the bus hit the passenger side of the truck. The force of the initial collision decelerated the truck to 49 miles per hour, while the bus accelerated to a speed between 46 and 50 miles per hour.

The empty bed of the gravel truck pushed forward from the force of the initial impact and the front right corner hit the mid-section of the bus, tearing a small hole in the side of the bus.

Still traveling at high speeds, the truck bed slammed with force into the rear of the seating compartment. The force of the collision propelled the two vehicles at cross angles into the ditch northwest of the intersection.

The truck hit a utility pole, shearing it off at the midpoint. When the bus encountered its final impact as it left the roadway and settled in the ditch, the alternator and front duals separated from the bus.

The vehicles ploughed through the earth, leaving deep furrows, before finally coming to a rest in the field adjacent to the intersection.

The actual duration of the collision was less than 2 seconds. The truck traveled 97 feet and the bus 109 feet from the point of the initial collision.

After a deafening collision, heard by neighbors, the silence was eerie. In the force of the collision, the truck’s air-ride seat had bottomed out and sprung, destroying the seat belt mechanism.

The driver’s head made contact with the passenger-side frame of the truck, and that injury resulted in the driver’s death although heroic efforts were taken to save his life.

Inside the bus, the 13 students and bus driver were spread through the bus, some of them fatally injured. The bus driver regained consciousness and reached for her two-way radio, attempting to radio for help.

Because there was no alternator on the bus, she couldn’t reach the dispatcher, and she tossed the mic. It was later found dangling near her seat; the location of the mic and why it was there prompted much discussion during investigations. She untangled herself from the dash that had been pushed back and crumpled around her body, and the seat belt she’d wrapped around the seat.

By the time she was making her way to the first of the students, help in the form of neighbors arrived.

As the first shock wore off and they regained consciousness, the kids started calling for help and for their moms.

Neighbors started to appear on the scene, and at least one of them dialed 911. Others ran back to their homes to grab blankets they used to wrap around the kids.

As police scanners erupted with the news, the first emergency response was dispatched, as were the first news copters. Before anyone contacted our office, the first reporters had arrived at the scene.

They hovered over the crash site until the vehicles were removed hours later; the scene was cleared around 4 p.m. that afternoon. Before they knew anything more than the location of the crash, the media was reporting fatalities.

Our dispatcher called my home, and since I lived close to the accident site, I left from home and went immediately to the site. My initial thought was that it would be like any other bus accident. We had no details at that point about a gravel truck being involved.

Coming around a bend in the road and seeing the utter devastation – the vehicles in the ditch, the snapped utility pole, and the emergency vehicles around the perimeter – was an unexpected indicator that this was not the usual type of crash.

I spent less than 15 minutes surveying the site. Observing the efforts of what seemed to be dozens of people, I knew I would best serve by going to my office to start our own protocols.

On my way to the office, I called my sister and we decided to dispatch personnel to each of the surrounding hospitals. We didn’t know at that point how many others would be there to support families.

Taking Care of Business
When I arrived at my office, the first call I made was to the school district office. I reached Richard Weiers, the school district’s business manager. He and I remained in constant contact throughout the day.

According to him, Superintendent Sheldon Johnson was already actively working with families and victims. During our first call, confirmation of the first fatality, an unidentified girl, reached me. Our young victim would later be identified as Kristine Burzinski, a fourth grade student.

My next call was to Joe Beaton, an attorney specializing in school transportation and lobbyist for the Minnesota School Bus Operators Association (MSBOA).

After his initial shock reaction, Beaton told me immediately to control information. “Protect your driver. Since she’s injured, she’s not obligated to make any comments or give any statements for thirty days. Advise her to use those days. And, Kari,” he added. “You cannot really trust anyone. Don’t say anything.”

The insurance agent, Dave Bakken, from Norwest Insurance, was my next contact. He promised to set in motion everything the insurance company would need.

He also had someone in his office contact our worker compensation carrier, State Fund Mutual. Both he and Beaton arrived at our office within a matter of hours.

Finally, I called my parents, who were out of town with a sick relative.

Our shop foreman had called them to tell them there was a crash, and they were hearing the first reports of it on the news.
I had to confirm that we’d had a fatality.

Dad: It was a gravel truck?
Me: Yes. Dad. We’ve had a fatality. A nine-year old girl. I don’t think it’s over yet.
Dad: Oh, my God.
Me: Dad? I don’t know what to do.
Dad: Yes you do. You’re doing it. Go take pictures. I’ll call you in an hour.

Shortly after my conversation with my parents, the public heard confirmation of that first fatality. By then, less than one hour had passed since the crash occurred.

During the next hour, I was in contact with the Minnesota State Patrol. When a bus has an accident meeting specific criteria, there are several rules and regulations that drive official response.

With the truck driver’s death, this crash met the criteria requiring the State Patrol to inspect the vehicles. They’d already been contacted by deputies on site, but I provided them with the necessary motor carrier information and driver information.

I was informed that in this crash, our bus would be inspected before anyone moved it from the site, and it would be inspected by the specialists in the Commercial Vehicle Unit. In a more typical crash, responding personnel would do a cursory inspection of the bus or the bus would be towed to a safe location for inspection.

I was relieved that we would have an expert looking at the bus before it was moved. It was already so damaged from the actual crash and from rescue efforts, I was worried about the effects of trying to move it.

Later, I spoke with Wright County dispatch, and started a packet for their investigators that would include photos I would take, insurance information, the student lists, and the driver’s statistical data.

Ultimately, none of the responding agencies would be responsible for the final report, nor would any of them conduct a full investigation.

I was in touch with staff at the various hospitals through our personnel on site. Though Driver Briita had identified each of the students while they were still at the crash site, those identifications were lost during the transit to hospitals.

Frantic efforts were being made to fully identify the students. At the Monticello-Big Lake Hospital, parents were brought in to each student’s room to identify them. Other parents tried to recall what their children had been wearing that morning.

My husband, Joe, started a list as we confirmed who was who, where they were, and what kind of injuries they had. On that first hand-written page, he identified their conditions and severity of injuries; the situation looked bleak for many.

Joe and our dispatcher were in contact with the various hospitals and school attendance offices to identify each student. That original document, with its various ink colors, multiple hand-writing styles, and strike-throughs, is testimony to the chaos of those initial hours.

The bus driver continued to be a help from her own hospital room; she remembered clearly what each student had been wearing and where they had been sitting at the time of the crash.

Student rider, Jordayna VanCulin, drew a picture of where students had been sitting from her own emergency-room cot.

Photograph
The accident report prepared by the National Safety Transportation Board (NSTB) included numerous post-crash photos, including this aerial view of the crash site at County Road 39 and County Road 11. This photo was taken while utility crews were working to restore a downed power line. The Hoglund Transportation school bus and gravel truck are pictured to the bottom left of the photo. (National Safety Transportation Board Official Photo)

Hospitals and Crash Site
After making contact with all the required people, I called colleagues. First was Vera Burgoyne from Elk River Public Schools. Second were Karen and Roger Millner from M & M Bus in Annandale.

They arrived at our office before noon that day. They sacrificed their day to stay and help, waiting at hospitals most of the day.

We maintained a presence at each hospital that received students, though initially we sent personnel even to the ones that were just on alert.

Once the crash site was clear, those waiting at the back-up hospitals went to other hospitals or came back to our office. The school district had school board members at each hospital too.

In an odd twist of fate, the board had been at the district office that morning working on finding a replacement for retiring Superintendent Sheldon Johnson. Those representatives were able to be at the hospitals quickly.

Everyone had the same goal: to provide support to the parents and a buffer between them and the very aggressive media. The hospitals had arranged for separate areas for the media and the families, but there was some overlap.

I found myself at the Monticello-Big Lake Hospital, standing in the emergency room hallway with Little Mountain Elementary Principal Bruce Novak.

While standing there, we learned of the second fatality, nine-year old Christopher Korblick, the son of one of our drivers. The assistant superintendent and other school personnel were in a room with the elder brother of the victim.

We heard the young man’s grief as he was told his brother had died. His parents weren’t there yet. I remember sliding to the floor at the overwhelming loss of yet another young life.

Again finding myself watching others do their jobs efficiently, and knowing I didn’t belong at the hospital, I was leaving when I encountered Judy Hauer, the mother of a dear friend of mine.

She was one of the few people – and truly the only lay person – I allowed to hug me that day. She conveyed her support and encouragement, and asked about my parents.

Back at the office, I talked to dad, confirming the second fatality, and then went back to the scene to take photographs.

By the time I was there, all victims and most people had cleared the site. I was able take photographs of the bus and truck from every angle.

As I was leaving, Duane Bartels from the State Patrol’s Commercial Vehicle Unit arrived. Duane was a meticulous inspector, and I knew he would be best suited to tell us if the bus was in some sort of disrepair or had some mechanical flaw.

Every place I looked, at every point, we were surrounded by people who are the best at what they do.

Within our own facility, we kept our drivers posted about how the students were doing and provided basic information about what was happening. The day was oddly quiet. No one knew what to say or do, so no one said or did anything.

We appreciated and recognized that everyone came to work that afternoon, with the exception of the driver of Bus 63 and the driver whose children were involved in the crash.

Their absence meant other drivers had to sub their routes. That was a tough thing to facilitate. It was, more than likely, even tougher to do. We were able to send adult riders along on the bus routes, which was comforting to the students and the bus drivers.

The Bus Driver
My dad connected with Driver Briita at St Cloud Hospital. I’d spoken to her a couple of times to find out about her injuries and to advise her to maintain her right to silence.

By that time, not willing to trust what anyone said without substantiation, I’d looked up the Minnesota Statute that allows an injured person 30 days to recover before making a statement.

Driver Briita and I also talked about post-accident controlled-substance testing and she indicated she had submitted to a test. There are very clear requirements for post-accident testing, and our mandated process had not been followed. It gave me pause; I wondered if we needed to have our testing facility follow our process and use our chain of custody forms. I checked with several experts before concluding the deputy’s testing had met the requirements.

I later learned of a regulation existing solely for unusual circumstances: there is a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) rule that governs post-accident testing and allows for an investigating entity to perform the testing outside the normal policies and guidelines when they find it necessary.

In this case, Wright County found it necessary, so we were not required to test her. Ultimately, she submitted to a test, but it was completed later than the policy required.

Wright County deputies and the Minnesota State Patrol had been looking for a copy of the driver pre-trip inspection form. School bus drivers are required to perform a pre-trip inspection of the vehicle they are about to drive each day.

Part of the process involves completing a pre-trip inspection form, and that form is required to be held in the vehicle for 24 hours, providing there are no defects. Her form was in her coat pocket. It proved elusive; ultimately, she was not ticketed for having it in her pocket rather than in the bus.

Tucked in the driver’s console to the left of her seat were pre-trip inspection forms, one for each day since the beginning of the school year. It probably helped that the bus proved defect-free. It changes things dramatically in a crash when a driver is ticketed, so we were relieved.

As the day wound down, I went to my parents’ home to watch the news reports. It was there we found out about the third fatality, nine-year old Andrew Heberling.

The day’s final status report was bleak: the truck driver had died, the bus driver had moderate injuries, three kids had been fatally injured, five kids had minor injuries, and five were in serious or worse condition.

News story after news story focused on the lack of seat belts in the school bus and speculated on whether the industry had shirked its responsibility to our students: would they be alive today had they had seatbelts, they wondered.

Unable to access the actual care givers involved in the day’s activities, the media interviewed random pediatric doctors; the ones that appeared in the news stories were livid over the continued absence of seatbelts when – in their opinion – seatbelts so clearly save lives. Someone kindly recorded all the news stories for us to keep in our archives.

The Media
The media created some of the most difficult moments during the day of the crash, and in subsequent days. A letter to the editor of the Monticello Times summarized the media presence well.

Pastor Kenneth Smith from the First Baptist Church of Monticello wrote two weeks after the crash:

I would like to commend the Times’ staff for the manner in which you reported the bus accident last week.

At a time when the insensitive and irresponsible news media from the Twin Cities were bombarding us, your paper took a step back and revealed the true character of what a newsstaff [sic]should be.

You were accurate, caring, thorough, and sensitive to the needs of the people in this community.

In fact, I would like everyone to know that the Monticello Times was the only reporting agency that did not hound my office during the difficult days following the accident.

I would also like to thank you for the assistance you gave us, when we called for help, in communicating to the news media our desire to mourn in peace.

You were a breath of fresh air in the cloud of unpleasantness that engulfed us last week!

All day on Thursday – crash day – a variety of media outlets had tried to contact us, and they continued calling for several days following the crash.

Other staff handled those calls, and with few exceptions, no reporters were able to talk directly to me.

Other people stood in the gap and spoke on our behalf. Maj. Dennis Lazenberry, state director of transportation, came to our office and gave interviews to the press.

In one notable interview, he indicated his confidence in our company and our family: “If I had a choice about who would take my children home tonight, I would chose this family.”

We heard that news agencies were going door-to door near the scene of the accident. They stumbled upon the father of one of the fatally injured students, and other grief-stricken members of our community.

They were offered statements by the Wright County Sheriff’s Department, the Minnesota State Patrol, Superintendent Johnson, the hospital board, and others.

They hungered for a word from our company, from our bus driver, from our employees, but they were largely disappointed.

One member of our staff, our shop foreman, had made some comments to Channel 4, WCCO, regarding the heroic efforts of our bus driver. Otherwise, we were silent.

Editor’s Note: See this week’s print edition of the Monticello Times for the second excerpt from Kari Hoglund Kounkel’s book, “Unspoken Sorrow – Whispers From A Broken Heart.” The Monticello Times is currently working on additional retrospective coverage of the April 10, 1997, school bus crash, one of the darkest days in Monticello’s history.

Contact Tim Hennagir at [email protected]