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Ramp where Pembroke Hill bus crashed had undergone safety upgrades

Updated: 2013-08-23T02:48:01Z

By TONY RIZZO

The Kansas City Star

The highway exit ramp where 22 children were injured in a school bus crash Wednesday was the subject of an engineering study last summer after a large number of crashes in 2010 and 2011, according to Kansas officials.

That study resulted in safety improvements that appear to have dramatically reduced the number of crashes on the ramp at the interchange of Kansas 7 and Kansas 32 in Bonner Springs, according to statistics released Thursday by the Kansas Department of Transportation.

Although the cause of Wednesday’s crash remains under investigation, engineers from the Department of Transportation plan to look at new data to determine if guardrails should be installed along the curving ramp where the crash occurred.

In Wednesday’s incident, two busloads of sixth-grade students from Pembroke Hill School in Kansas City were heading to an overnight camping trip when one of the buses skidded off the road and rolled onto its side as it exited Kansas 7 onto Kansas 32.

Twenty-two of the 36 girls on the bus were taken to four hospitals with a variety of injuries ranging from scrapes and bruises to concussions and neck injuries. However, none of the injuries was considered critical. The second bus, carrying boys from the class, was not involved in the wreck.

On Thursday morning, three of the hospitals reported that all of the students they received had been released. Three students who were admitted overnight at another hospital were expected to be released by the end of the day Thursday, according to school officials.

The driver of the bus, identified by the Kansas Highway Patrol as 66-year-old Elmer Scott Jr. of Kansas City, remained hospitalized Thursday at Overland Park Regional Medical Center.

According to the Highway Patrol’s preliminary report, the passenger side tires of the bus went off the right side of the road. The driver applied the brakes and attempted to steer back onto the roadway, according to the report.

The rear end of the bus then slid sideways down an embankment and the bus overturned onto its passenger side.

Witnesses and students on the bus described a frightening scene as students tumbled on top of each other and crying children streamed from emergency exits as witnesses rushed to help.

Trooper Howard Dickinson, a Highway Patrol spokesman, said investigators will try to determine if there were any mechanical issues with the bus that might have contributed to the crash. They also will look into other possible factors such as speed or driver error.

According to the Department of Transportation, the ramp where Wednesday’s crash occurred had 25 accidents in 2010 and 2011, resulting in injuries to 10 people.

After last year’s engineering study, the department resurfaced the ramp pavement and installed signs and arrows to help guide motorists through the ramp.

Last year, the number of reported accidents dropped to five with one injury reported, although the department did not say if those occurred before or after the improvements. So far in 2013 there had been two wrecks before Wednesday’s incident.

The bus from Durham School Services is registered in Missouri, where state law requires at least two inspections each year. The 2009 bus had 64,962 miles on its odometer when it was last inspected by the Missouri Highway Patrol in March.

Missouri Highway Patrol records indicate that no defects were found during that inspection, and the bus was approved for operation.

At the school Thursday, officials began the day with a special assembly to help the students begin to heal from the ordeal.

Sixty-two of the 81 members of the class, including 19 of the girls who were on the bus that crashed, were addressed by principal Susan Leonard, who offered whatever support they needed, said Beth Bryant, the school’s communications director.

“We want you to know how much you are loved and how much we care about you,” Leonard told the children, according to Bryant.

Counselors were made available for any students who wanted to talk.

Several parents of girls who were injured said they were impressed and appreciative of how the incident was handled by first responders.

A message on the school’s Facebook page also expressed thanks to first responders.

“Thanks go out for the professional and caring way they managed the scene,” the statement read.

The school also expressed thanks to the Bonner Springs School District, which provided a place for uninjured students to wait for parents to pick them up.

Bryant said the sixth-grade trip was an annual tradition at the school, and students spent the day Thursday participating in some of the camp games and activities at the school instead.

Leonard also rewarded students for how they had handled the situation by giving each a wristband containing the words fellowship, compassion and integrity.

“For the most part, we’re just wanting time for them to heal,” Bryant said.

To reach Tony Rizzo, call 816-234-4435 or send email to trizzo@kcstar.com.

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