By Tim Eberly
No Dodson School students suffered life-threatening injuries Tuesday when a rural school bus on its morning route crashed into a road grader plowing snow on Route 204 south of Dodson, the Montana Highway Patrol said.
Twenty students, all from southern Phillips County, were treated at the county hospital in Malta and four of those were later taken to Northern Montana Hospital, Phillips County Hospital administrator Larry Putnam said.
A 12-year-old boy was flown to NMH because medical personnel were concerned he might have suffered serious head and neck injuries, Dodson School Superintendent Dollyann Willcutt said today. The other three were driven by a Phillips County ambulance.
The boy was released from the hospital Tuesday night and is in good condition, she said. A 7-year-old girl suffered internal injuries but was also released from Northern Montana Hospital Tuesday night, she said.
The drivers involved in the accident, 50-year-old Don Wilkes and Jack Munsinger, 61, were both treated and released from Fort Belknap Health Center, Willcutt said.
Munsinger, the road-grader driver who was plowing snow, was southbound on Route 204 on the wrong side of the road in a low, dense fog, the Highway Patrol said.
He did not have a flashing beacon on his vehicle but his headlights were on, the Highway Patrol said.
"It wasn't a good situation, to be plowing snow in the fog, driving on the wrong side of the road," Highway Patrol Sgt. Mark Bosch said today.
The school bus was northbound, 11.4 miles south of Dodson, when it collided with the grader at 7:35 a.m. on the slender, gravel road, the officer said.
The bus struck the right front tire first, and then the blade on the front of the vehicle, the patrol said. The impact forced the bus to pivot into the southbound lane, where it toppled over. It came to rest on its left side, partially in a roadside ditch.
The grader rolled into a ditch on the opposite side of the road.
Six high school students were instrumental in getting the adolescent students to safety. "My older students got my younger kids out of the bus," said Willcutt, who went to the scene after the accident. "They huddled them together, and got them to the side of the road."
Two members of Dodson's volunteer fire department, Steve Tremblay and Sarese Pankratz, were the first to arrive on the scene and crammed children into their vehicles to keep them warm.
Bosch said the school bus was driving about 40 mph. Munsinger was driving considerably slower, he said.
The Highway Patrol has not charged either driver in the wreck. An investigation is ongoing.
The driver of a second grader, which was plowing snow in the right lane and was a safe distance from Munsinger's vehicle, called 911.
Visibility was between 50 to 100 feet because of the fog, which was the primary factor in the accident, Bosch said.
None of the 20 students all attend the Dodson School and range in age from 5 to 16 were wearing seat belts, as the bus was not equipped with them, Bosch said.
After the accident, a small fire erupted in the engine of the grader, but Munsinger quickly snuffed it with the vehicle's fire extinguisher, the officer said.
Five ambulances two from Fort Belknap, two from Malta and one from Saco responded. Eleven children were transported 35 miles to Malta by ambulance, while the rest were taken to the hospital in another school bus.
At 8 a.m., when Phillips County Hospital administrator Larry Putnam was notified of the students' impending arrival, he mobilized the hospital's disaster plan, putting about 25 medical personnel to work. The hospital closed its out-patient facility, located four blocks from the hospital, for the day so all three medical providers could treat the Dodson students, Putnam said.
Most of the students were treated in the 14-bed hospital's emergency, in-patient and physical therapy rooms. "Just any space they could find, we were treating patients," Putnam said.
While doctors and hospital personnel provided the children with first aid treatment and X-rays, roughly 80 family members and friends filled the hallways and waiting room area.
"The family members just started streaming in," Putnam said today. "Some of the family members got here before their kids did. It was just real crowded."
To feed the masses, Willcutt ordered 10 large pizzas from a local pizza parlor. The hospital also provided cookies and coffee, as well as trays of fruit, vegetables and meat from a local grocery store.
A handful of local pastors arrived from nearby churches, offering support and counsel. "They were just making sure they were calmed down and had somebody to talk to," Putnam said.
While the young children involved in the accident did not attend school today, others wrote thank you cards to the older students and hung them on the school walls.