Monticello community supported families after tragic 1997 bus crash

The days after the April 10, 1997, bus crash that killed three Pinewood Elementary School students and the driver of a gravel truck were a time of deep tragedy and immense grief as the community of Monticello and its families searched for answers and information.

Fourth-grade students and Hoglund bus riders Kristine Burzinski, Christopher Korblick, and Andrew Heberling had been killed, and John Doyle, 42, Zimmerman, the driver of the gravel truck, also died at the crash scene at the intersection of County Road 39 and County Road 11.

Monticello resident Kari Hoglund Kounkel has written a first-person perspective that looks back upon that tragic day and its aftermath.

Kounkel hopes her book, “Unspoken Sorrow – Whispers From A Broken Heart,” will resonate with people who work in school transportation, those who are in recovery, and people who long to understand redemption.

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

She left locally owned Hoglund Transportation in 2014 and started her own business.

“Eventually, I realized that until I actually told the whole story from start to finish, and until I actually provided more than just facts and circumstances, it wasn’t going to ever go away,” Kounkel said.

In the book’s preface, Kounkel initially talks about finding a way to address the grief the community of Monticello went through after the crash occurred.

“I was completely isolated from how the community grieved,” she said. “Even today, when talking with some of the people whose names appeared in news articles at the time [of the crash], they remember what happened to this community.”

Kounkel said the 1997 bus crash and its aftermath isn’t about someone dying, or being hurt, or a tragic event.

“It was about a community coming together and saying, ‘These were our kids, and this happened in our community and these are our families,’ ” she said. “It was something that has affected this community for the last 20 years.”

For Kounkel, the days, weeks, months, and even years following the April 10 bus crash involved many events, including an emotional, quiet pilgrimage to the crash site with co-workers to pray, long meetings with state and federal crash investigators, interaction with grief counselors, and numerous calls and correspondence with lawyers and insurance companies.

“Unfortunately, there are people like me all over the country who are [currently] managing school transportation and they’ve experienced something catastrophic,” Kounkel said. “The entire time I was watching all this play out in Monticello, I couldn’t find a spot for me. There wasn’t anybody I could talk to about what I was experiencing and because of the warnings from lawyers and the legal representatives, I could not talk to my community. That’s a tough position to be in. You feel intense grief and you try to convince yourself you shouldn’t be feeling it because you are not part of that puzzle.”

The following first-chapter excerpt from Kounkel’s book details events occurring after April 10, 1997. The second half of that first chapter, “Facts and Circumstances,” is published here.

Friday, April 11

The morning after crash day, we all arrived early at the office. We had worked with the school district to arrange for grief counselors to meet with drivers.

The gathering of drivers following morning routes was one of the largest we’d had in our training room.

Altogether, it was another overwhelmingly silent day.

Early in the day, between the grief meeting and an insurance meeting, I found two stop arm violations on my desk.

I read the details with an odd sort of shock: on the day after the most horrible school bus accident in recent history, in our very own community, not one but two motorists failed to see stopped school buses with flashing lights and stop arms extended.

The deputy who stopped to gather the reports was just as dumbfounded as I was.

Most notably April 11 saw the arrival of the lawyers appointed by the St Paul Companies, a phone call from Rep. Darlene Luther (DFL-Brooklyn Park), and the appearance of investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

Within hours of the collision, a special investigative team from the NTSB had been dispatched to Minnesota.

We had received notification on Thursday, with a warning to expect them on Friday.

Special Agent Richard Downs conducted the first interview with our company. Dad and I met with him. He essentially told us that the NTSB is allowed to have access to even the most private company documents.

If we chose to deny them such access, they would return with subpoenas and a less friendly disposition.

I didn’t, of course, blindly trust his word. I made some calls to find out about the NTSB and their Board.

There’s plenty of information available about them now, with Internet access. Twenty years ago it was more difficult to find.

I learned that the NTSB has a primary charge to improve transportation safety. They are not to assign blame in a crash, so no party is viewed as an adversary. Their reports can be used in lawsuits, but they cannot be subpoenaed to testify in them.

The initial crew is a fact-gathering group. They compile data about velocity and g-forces, how the road is constructed, what types of vehicles are involved, and all issues related to survival factors: in other words, they study what it would have taken to make each specific crash survivable by everyone involved.

They examine all crash factors, from the most obvious to seemingly unrelated things. They learned much about our company I never expected them to ask – that we had five different kinds of school buses, that we employed 63 people of whom 43 were school bus drivers and six were mechanics, that we had been in business for 50 years, that we were specifically exempt from certain CDL regulations by state statute, and many other details.

The initial crew eventually presents their findings to a board of directors, and the five-member Board makes recommendations to improve safety.

They may recommend something as mundane as making asphalt out of different materials or moving a “Stop Ahead” sign a few feet to improve visibility.

In the case of a school bus crash, they could recommend seatbelts or a redesign of the seating system. They could recommend nothing at all. They could combine similar crashes and make group recommendations, which is what they would ultimately do in Monticello.

And Investigator Downs was absolutely correct. They could have whatever they asked for. So I gave it to him over the course of days the group was in the area – and afterward.

A year prior, we wouldn’t have. Even a month prior, we would have been lacking some information.

When we met with group members at their St. Cloud hotel on the weekend, I had prepared a box of materials based on their queries.

As they asked for document after document relating to our training programs, maintenance schedules, and driver compliance, I handed them copies I’d made. It was an exhausting meeting for dad and me, but we were able to comply with every request they had for information.

I didn’t even understand why they wanted some of the materials they requested, but we gave it to them. The investigation of the April 10 crash would take months and the report years.

The initial visit consisted of conducting tests and coordinating with other agencies, including the Minnesota State Patrol and the Wright County Sheriff’s Department.

The investigators were meticulous: they looked at everything and they measured everything. Everything.

As the stand-in for the actual driver, they measured the height of my eyes from the ground and again from the seat while I sat.

They measured the mirrors and determined that they’d been placed in an unusual configuration. They reconstructed the crash using a bus and a truck identical to the ones in the crash. Moving each vehicle forward in increments of 50 feet, they measured and re-measured.

They interviewed management and employees at both companies regarding hiring and training policies. They examined the vehicles and the documentation related to their purchase and maintenance.

Weeks later, they came back to interview the driver and the students. Their goal in those interviews was to determine where the students were sitting just prior to the collision and then after the collision.

They took the steering sector from the bus and conducted tests on it in June 1997. They sent the seat belt mechanism for tests.

Each night during the primary investigation, they conducted a debriefing to tell us all they learned.

I wasn’t alone in soaking up every word they said. The commute back and forth was really the only time left to discuss anything – and then it would have been my only private time with dad.

We didn’t talk though. Neither of us had the energy it would have taken to hold conversations of our own.

Victims and Families

Behind the scenes, we were busy. We worked with grief counselors for days; many bus drivers were confronted with the life and death nature of their job, and with the realization that they were charged with protecting very vulnerable young lives.

On the recommendations of the counselors, we loaded a bus with drivers and made our very quiet pilgrimage to the site. My mother-in-law prayed out loud, but there were no other words.

We had constant communication with so many departments and offices. One thing that consumed a great deal of time was the contact with our worker’s compensation representative regarding our bus driver.

We knew the driver would be out of work because of her injuries, and we wanted her well cared for. It cost me multiple phone calls to get permission to continue to pay her.

I was determined we would though; she never missed work and had the crash not occurred, she would have been there.

We were finally given permission to pay her continuously without it hurting her claim. The claim representative had been worried that it would appear she worked continuously, and lost days are factored into a final settlement.

We didn’t have the same issue with our driver who lost his son as he would not be filing a worker’s compensation claim, so we continued to pay him too. It was the least we could do.

The weekend following the crash, we went to visit the little victims in their hospitals.

I was so afraid of being turned away, I was sweating as we approached the rooms. My fears were unfounded; parents graciously welcomed us and let us see their children.

It was an honor to be there witnessing the miracles of recovery. We offered the parents the opportunity to come ride with their students before they eventually sent them to school alone on the bus.

We followed through and they were able to ride with their children. We let them in our private spaces, the places where even employees didn’t go.

One parent asked to sit with me in our upper level storage area to look at some company documents and photos, and I welcomed her.

There was nothing we could do to facilitate physical healing. Our capacity to help was so completely inadequate – especially after the lawyers arrived on the scene – but we did what we could do. It wasn’t enough; I felt helpless much of the time.

Monday and Tuesday we went to the funerals. At the joint funeral for Kristine and Andrew, we provided buses for the mourners to ride from the church to the gravesites and back.

There were five buses, all tied with the yellow ribbons that had come to symbolize the crash and its victims.

The Investigations

By May 7, the insurance company and its lawyers were struggling with the NTSB restrictions and rights.

The dramatized battles between investigating agencies and jurisdictions we see in movies and television dramas are real, and not quite as easy to experience as to watch.

With the exception of the NTSB investigators for whom no one was an adversary, I had the impression that everyone else was always annoyed; most of the time I assumed they were annoyed with me.

The NTSB mandate specifically states that attorneys are not “parties” to the investigations.

According to regulations, only parties to the investigation get updates and the right to participate in the meetings, to attend the debriefings, and to maintain access to the investigators.

I kept in contact with our lawyers and provided them with reports after each encounter they did not attend.

Hearing somehow that the local investigations were complete, the lawyers were incensed that they hadn’t received Wright County’s final report.

The sheriff had sent the report, as instructed, to the NTSB, who forwarded it to each named party. Colby Lund, attorney for the St Paul Companies, had a fierce conversation with me.

Engaged by then in the busiest time of year for transportation companies, I assured him I would get him the report.

A communication snafu between our mail runner and me resulted in a two-day delay.

About a week later, we received a two-page letter reiterating everything Lawyer Lund and I had discussed and served as ample scolding for the delay.

By the time we received the letter, the report had been on Lawyer Lund’s desk for nearly a week, and he and I had discussed it at length.

For me, the end result was an increasing inability to depend on others for help with important tasks.

On May 12, the NTSB – this time in partnership with the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration (NHSTA) – looked at the bus again.

While they were in the area, they also conducted their interview with the bus driver on May 13.

Representatives from the sheriff’s department and several lawyers attended the interview as well.

It was a measure of respect for the bus driver, I think, that they coordinated their efforts so she would only have to answer questions once.

It was still an exhausting process for her in the midst of her recovery. I sat with her throughout the interview.

I think we were both grateful to sit together amid what seemed an overwhelming and intimidating collection of officials.

The driver was very composed and answered questions openly and honestly no matter how many times they were asked.

By the time the investigators left, they’d done reconstructions, and had studied the companies, vehicles, and drivers.

They had collected data about drag factors, visibility, and student seating. They had allowed outside agencies to inspect the cab, the truck’s seat belt mechanism, and the power steering sector.

They had talked extensively about mirrors on the school bus as the mirrors on our bus were configured to a newer standard than the usual bus.

In relation to the driver and caliber of our training, they reviewed multiple driver files, evaluations of drivers, student management records, and worker compensation data.

When they left, their next task was to create more studies and generate more data: all the data they’d collected would ultimately result in computer-generated re-enactments and reports to their Board.

I was not alone in being deeply impatient for them to complete their work.

Concurrently, the insurance companies were also collecting information.

They collected copies of company policies and training documents, especially anything related to our school bus driver training.

The document requests were not specific to a single driver or single bus. We continued to be compliant in providing documentation.

I first checked with Lawyer Beaton, but we didn’t have anything to hide; to the contrary, we were proud of the way we trained drivers and maintained our vehicles.

The insurance company also wanted to know about the involvement of the employees in operational decisions, what role the school district played in route design and approval, and how students and student distraction factored into the equation.

By the time they were done asking for things and posing questions, I knew much more about our business than I had before they arrived.

Funeral and medical expenses were necessarily a high priority for victims’ families, and the insurance companies were on the hook for those expenses.

The community had created a fund at a local bank which would be used by the families, but the number of victims and the magnitude of the care required for the survivors far exceeded the limits of that fund.

Insurers and victims were attempting to process through the initial costs.

Under the provisions relating to Minnesota’s No-Fault Insurance, the first $20,000 of medical and $20,000 of the qualifying non-medical, along with the first $2,000 of funeral expense was to be paid by the family’s vehicle policy.

No-Fault Insurance is very confusing to people involved in a situation like ours; how does it make sense, families wondered, that their own policies had to pay anything at all. I agreed with them.

On May 14, the Monticello Hospital held a debriefing. It was the only non-NTSB debriefing we attended, and it was an occasion that deliberately excluded lawyers. Dad and I attended by invitation.

The presenters offered a new perspective about many aspects of the rescue efforts, and their comments were not exclusive to the “facts and circumstances” involved with the crash itself.

I recognized I wasn’t the only person involved who felt unprepared and uncertain even while following my own protocols.

They talked at length about entangled communications and about the dangerous impact of excessive numbers of bystanders; they concluded there were too many people allowed inside the perimeter.

The paramedics said they experienced a shortage of equipment and that they would have benefited from an on-site triage officer.

Every presenter talked about how difficult it was to identify the students amid rescue efforts and talked about the chaos created by the sheer number of rescuers involved.

Five area hospitals were involved, with eleven different crews responding, resulting in more than fifteen emergency vehicles on site.

Eleven of Wright County’s 42 traffic deputies had responded to the crash.

With the presence of news crews, bystanders, and utility repair crews, the sense of disorganization was deeply felt even while individuals were providing life-sustaining care and evacuating students to medical facilities.

There are very simple solutions to student identification, of course. I’ve always wondered why they didn’t just write their names on their arms when the bus driver identified them.

At the time, I was so busy being silent I didn’t think to offer my thoughts. I was, after all, no expert on emergency triage.

Debriefings of this type don’t draw conclusions; they’re designed to recreate the day and develop better response strategies. I was struck, again, by the professionalism and expertise of the people involved.

Still, it was very clear that the day had made a huge emotional impact on every person who responded, and that there was room for improvement.

That evening the Monticello School Board and the NTSB met with the families and the recovering children.

They allowed the families to ask questions about the crash and their subsequent activities.

A second meeting was later held with the families and the Wright County Sheriff’s Department; we were not allowed to attend that by mandate of Lawyer Lund.

In June 1997, the power steering sector that had been removed from the wreck of the bus was tested in Ohio.

Though invited, we opted not to attend. The insurance company paid for the test, and the results were made public almost immediately.

The results indicated that the driver had been accurate when she said she’d been driving 45 miles per hour.

At the point of impact, a clicker of sorts in the steering mechanism generates an indelible mark at the speed point. As many times as that question had been asked during the deposition, I was relieved by the accuracy of her answer.

Over the coming weeks and months, I maintained regular contact with the NTSB.

There was Gerald Weeks, the survival factors expert, who desperately wanted a video recording from the day of the crash.

I’ve never been more thankful for anything else in my life than I was that there was no recording inside that bus; we would have watched it, and those would certainly be images no one would quickly forget.

Rick Downs headed the human performance area, and maintained contact with me the longest.

The chief investigator was David Rayburn, a very courtly and intelligent man who shared information periodically.

David Black was the Chair of the Board at that time; we never met him, but did have some communication as the reports were finalized.

Lawsuits and Reports

On April 10, 1999, we were served with the first of the lawsuits.

The lawsuit was by Barton Sand and Gravel and their et als, and the first and only sentence I read that day claimed the crash was “due to the negligence and incompetence of your bus driver and your company.”

Once they were sued by the families the gravel company needed to protect their own interests by filing suit against us for each one they received.

The process allowed them to maintain access to our insurance policies.

No family ever sued us though, and many were quick to make certain we knew it wasn’t their choice.

At that point, two years after the crash, there was a shift from recovery, sadness, and grief to the business of paying for the losses experienced.

We had the option to sue, too. Having already been reimbursed for the cost of the bus, we opted not to sue anyone.

On Sept. 21, 1999, we received the final report from the NTSB, the “Highway Special Investigative Report and Bus Crashworthiness Report.”

The conclusion, after all the investigations and research, was there were no unsurvivable conditions.

Two exemplary companies, two exemplary drivers, and two exemplary vehicles collided on April 10, 1997. The truck driver had a heart condition that had no role in the crash.

There was discussion of emergency preparedness that indicated our community needed a formalized plan, and that any assessment after the fact of a crash needed to ask whether the plan was implemented.

The results of that long investigation were anticlimactic and I was left gravely disappointed that there was still no identifiable cause and no one to blame.

Seat Belts, Aftermath

Meanwhile, the entire industry was talking about seatbelts.

In Minnesota, legislators were working to secure funding for additional seat belt technology testing, while groups like the newly formed PASS Legislation were saying that there had been enough testing, and it was time to install seatbelts.

Nationally, a new seat belt study was being conducted using new crash test standards.

The discussions were controversial, and heated, and they continued for months.

After several months, I resigned my position with the MSBOA; it’s impossible for the editor of an industry-specific newsletter to continue that position without being able to write about the most controversial issue facing that industry, and I certainly couldn’t write about seatbelts.

In March 1998, on the front page of The Operator, I wrote:

For the last six years, the MSBOA Business Office has been located in Monticello.

Effective in theory January 1, 1998, and in practice March 9, 1998, the office has relocated to [a different location]… Events immediately prior to this change have come as something of a surprise to me.

For the last year, we have been coping with the tremendous aftershocks of the April 10, 1997, school bus/gravel truck accident in Monticello.

From what we understand the next two months are going to be worse for us. I have heard from so many of you who said that the accident changed your perspective – it’s changed ours too.

We, my family and our employees, are different people than we were a year ago.

Somehow though, people start to heal after the first-year anniversary of a tragedy, and that is yet to come for us … The final effect is that I have chosen to withdraw from all MSBOA activity, including writing the newsletter and working on legislative matters on behalf of the association… Having finally made the decision, I am surprised to feel an immense sense of relief – I am excited by the fact that my children and I will be going home before dark and will be able to enjoy fully our “Stay Days” (my sons’ term for Saturdays and Sundays) without thinking about work.

Please know that I have served you with my heart and soul – I have a passionate belief in what we do and in who we are, and that will certainly never change. Now I will direct that passion toward my dad, our company, and our employees.

After the day of the crash and the following Friday and Monday, and despite all the crash-related activity that ensued, our company was back to “business as usual” relatively quickly, responding to the pattern of transportation demands.

That, too, was at the advice of the grief counselors. While business commenced, and everyone returned to their responsibilities relatively quickly, nothing was ever the same again for me.

For all those days, weeks, and years, we maintained complete silence publicly. The only thing we were allowed to say, and we said it often, was, “We are so sad.” We said it for years.

The local newspaper, the Monticello Times, did regular anniversary updates.

For the fifth year, a reporter contacted us to see what we had to say. She spoke to the bus driver and to me.

I said a lot of words to the reporter, without saying anything at all. It was more of the same, “We are so sad,” that we’d been saying for years.

Not long after that interview, I had what would be one of my final conversations with Rick Downs of the NTSB.

My repeated request to him had been to tell me what we did wrong so we could fix it; if we knew what was wrong, we could share it with our industry, making certain nothing similar would happen in the future.

His conclusion left me unsettled. He said, “You know, Kari, sometimes bad things just happen. There is no one to blame and nothing to fix.”

Seven years after the bus crash, Lawyer Lund called to give me some news.

Lund: We’re settling the lawsuits, Kari.

Me: What’s the bad news?

Lund: (laughs) We’re settling, meaning we are paying a portion of the settlements to the families. There’s no admission of guilt. And everything’s done.

Me: Why on earth would we do that?

Lund: Because it’s far less expensive to settle than to litigate. But there’s no admission of guilt.

Me: (uncomfortably long pause)

Lund: This is good news, Kari. Now it’s all over and life can get back to normal.

Me: It’s all just… so sad.

Only two things about the lawsuits ever registered on my radar: that they arrived on the second anniversary of the crash and that the lawyers settled without defending us from those printed words accusing us of “negligence and incompetence.”

Those words were just left dangling in my consciousness.

Logically and rationally, all signs indicated that we were just the opposite: we were responsible and competent.

I could not report a single detail about how the settlements played out for anyone.

As important and necessary as the lawsuits were for the families, for me the fact of lawsuits and results of legal finagling was irrelevant.

All I remember thinking was that we were now free to speak at will about all those things that had been taboo since April 10, 1997.

Several months after the final settlement, we were invited to speak to a group of our peers about the bus crash.

For the first time we said something more than that we were sad.

I matter-of-factly told them the facts and circumstances, much as they are laid out here.

The room was utterly silent, except for the occasional indication of tears.

I remember making eye contact with every person attending that day, and seeing their desire to understand along with a complete lack of condemnation.

I showed them a few of the photographs I’d taken that clearly showed the decimation of the school bus.

The brightly colored photographs of a ruined school bus made sense to these people who understood exactly what that damage meant.

My dad sat at a table near the front, off-center. He sobbed audibly during the telling and later told me he had no idea about all the things I done.

When I concluded the remarks, those people rose to their feet and applauded us for representing our industry with dignity and honor.

I thought that was the end of the story.

Editor’s Note: Kari Hoglund Kounkel’s book, “Unspoken Sorrow – Whispers From A Broken Heart” is available for purchase on Amazon. The Monticello Times is currently working on additional retrospective coverage of the April 10, 1997, school bus crash, and will publish stories the remainder of this month.

Contact Tim Hennagir at [email protected]