Two of the 13 children involved in the 1997 Monticello school bus crash recently thanked the Monticello Fire Department for its life-saving assistance on a tragic day.
Jordayna Van Culin and Brant Van Culin were joined by their mother, Roxane, for an emotional reunion with Matt Theisen, Neil Kranz, Jeff Kranz, and Steve Hanson exactly 20 years to the day of the crash.
The gathering took place at the fire hall, shortly before the start of a regular Monday night meeting of firefighters.
Brant’s wife, Stephanie, and their two children, Bennett age 2, and Baylee 3 months, also attended the event. Jordayna, who is married to Josh Ordorff, was accompanied by daughters, Josilynn, age 9, and Jaedynn, age 6 1/2. Jordana and Josh have two other children: Jaelynn age 2, and Jordynn age 1.
Theisen has been a member of the Monticello Fire Department since 1982, Neil Kranz has been a member of the department since 1987 and Jeff Kranz has been a member since 1993.
Retired firefighter Steve Hanson is a former CentraCare Health emergency medical technician (EMT) who now works at NovaCare Rehabilitation. All four men were at the crash scene.
The Van Culins followed Theisen, Neil and Jeff Kranz and Hanson and other firefighters out to the fire station’s truck bay, and stood around Engine 1 and Ladder 1, recalling how those trucks rolled into action 20 years ago.
“You guys don’t know how much you mean to the community, and to the [1997 bus crash] survivors,” Brant said. “It’s amazing that two of the trucks that responded that day are still here. I never thought they would still be here,” he added.
The two trucks were among a huge gathering of emergency vehicles that were dispatched the morning of April 10, 1997, to the intersection of County Road 39 and County Road 11 shortly after 8 a.m.
According to a National Safety Transportation Board investigation report dated Jan. 29, 1998, the Monticello Volunteer Fire Department received a call from the Wright County Sheriff’s Department dispatch desk to respond to the scene at 8:12 a.m.
A fire department log sheet shows an arrival time at 8:23 a.m.
“We didn’t know what had happened, and who had helped our kids,” Roxane told the four emergency responders. “We just wanted to say ‘Thank you’ to all the firefighters who responded and to show our appreciation,” she said. “We know that you were very affected by the accident. We are very blessed that you guys responded, because you guys were the one’s who saved Brant’s life.”
Roxane said Brant was sitting in the seat where a hole had been punched in the bus by the front corner of the dump trailer being pulled by the truck.
After the crash, children were found on the floor and aisle areas, with some children laying on top of others, near their initial seating locations, the NTSB investigation report stated.
Several children in the rear of the bus were found wedged under seats, which were removed by emergency responders using hydraulic extrication equipment.
Emergency responders used both the rear and left side emergency exit doors to evacuate students.
Due to wreckage debris, the main, right front service door of the bus could not be immediately used to evacuate kids and bus driver Britta Lorentz until collision debris had been removed.
When Brant was found, he was not breathing, Roxane said. Emergency personnel at the scene had to administer CPR.
Brant had sustained head injuries, including a fracture on the right side of his temple. He also had a slight leakage of blood into his brain four days after the crash, the Monticello Times reported in its 1997 coverage.
Jordayna was looking out the bus window when she saw the gravel truck coming toward the school bus.
The driver of the truck, John Doyle, had failed to stop for a posted stop sign and skidded into the intersection.
Jordayna closed her eyes and put her hands on the seat. Then she said she heard three booms, the sound of the bus and the truck slamming together.
The front of the Hoglund Transportation bus first hit the semi-tractor’s right front wheel.
The right front corner of the semi-trailer’s dump box then struck the left side of the bus body at the roof line.
Finally, the rear of the bus rotated clockwise and smashed into the right side of the semi-trailer.
Jordayna said after she got off the bus without serious injuries, she was cold, so the second Barton Sand & Gravel driver who was following Doyle put her into his truck’s cab.
“That probably was before all of you guys got there,” she said.
Theisen said he was in the first fire truck that was dispatched out to the crash scene.
“Kevin Stumpf was driving Engine 1,” Theisen said, pointing to the truck, a short distance away. Theisen asked the Van Culins to recall where their were sitting on the bus.
“Seat 2 and Seat 3, behind the driver,” Jordayna said. Theisen recalled that he provided assistance to seven students who were sitting in the far back positions on Bus 63.
“We were working on students inside the bus, and they told us we might have to leave the bus because of the power pole that the truck had hit and knocked down,” Theisen said. “A deputy or someone in law enforcement said, ‘Shut that line down right now. We have lives at stake.’ I remember that coming over the radio. It was bad [in the back of the bus]. Every window on the back side was shattered,” he said.
All of the kids’ IDs were in their backpacks, Roxane said. “Those backpacks flew everywhere. Nobody had any identification. Kids were put into ambulances and sent off. It got mixed up when the kids started arriving at the hospitals,” she said.
Hanson recalled the department trained a few different times with school buses after the 1997 crash.
“I bet we could take apart a school bus a lot easier now then we could have back then,” he said.
Brad Fyle has been a member of the Monticello Fire Department since 1984.
While he wasn’t at the scene of the day of the 1997 bus crash, Fyle said during the April 10 reunion that if local firefighters and emergency responders are challenged by another mass casualty crash and response, everything will work much better.
“We now have officers who delegate and direct, instead of everybody digging in,” Fyle said. “Years ago, everybody wanted to be on the inside.”
Contact Tim Hennagir at [email protected]