As a volunteer firefighter for Douglass, Shane Hilyard is trained to respond to emergencies. As a dad, his heart is all about protecting his children.
This week, he found himself doing both at the same time.
“I was more of a scared dad than anything,” Hilyard said Friday.
Late Thursday afternoon, he was one of the first on the scene of an overturned school bus that had been pushed into a swollen Butler County creek by water 2 feet deep as it rushed across a low-water crossing.
The water pushed against the wheels, shoving them next to a 6- to 8-inch-high concrete lip – like a curb – along the edge of the crossing and causing the full-size bus to flip into Muddy Creek and land on its side, authorities said.
Hilyard and his family live about 200 yards south of the crossing, about five miles northeast of Douglass. He said he was waiting for his two children, Claire, 11, and Dalton, 9, to arrive home from school.
His parents, Brent and Charlene Hilyard, live immediately to the north of the crossing. Charlene Hilyard happened to look out the window as the bus went into the creek.
Her first call was to 911, her second was to her son.
“I heard her say the bus went off the bridge,” Shane Hilyard said, “and that’s all I heard. I flew down there.
“I had all those thoughts going through my head, about how bad it could be.”
Only his father beat him to the scene.
Hilyard arrived to see all 10 of the students – ages 6 to 12 and including Claire and Dalton – sitting on top of the bus. About half the busload of schoolchildren had already been dropped off.
He breathed a brief sigh of relief but still felt uneasy. He may be in his rookie year as a firefighter, but he has lived in the area long enough to know a lot can go wrong with so much water moving so fast.
Emergency crews began arriving. Hilyard and Lonnie Carr, a seven-year veteran as a Douglass volunteer firefighter, tethered themselves with a rope that was secured to the shore before they began carefully walking through the waist-deep water to the bus.
They climbed on top. Hilyard sat with the children. Carr went below to be with the injured driver, Morris “Joe” Peterson, as the rescue operation began to slowly but carefully unfold.
“I was amazed how all the kids handled themselves,” Hilyard said. “They were all under control. The older ones were helping the younger ones.”
It would be nearly two hours before the last child was removed from the bus.
“The kids were as safe as they could be at the time,” said Jim Schmidt, Butler County’s emergency coordinator, who oversaw the water rescue. “You can’t make a mistake. You can’t just start grabbing kids off a slippery bus.”
A fire hose inflated with air was strung across the creek as a floating barrier downstream. Rescue swimmers went in the water, just in case. Life jackets were put on all the children.
The children were carefully taken back down the side emergency door and to the rear emergency door. Two at a time, they were put on a boat and taken to shore.
“Your heart is in your throat the whole time,” Schmidt said. “There was every chance in the world for this thing to go south, but it didn’t. We’re so thankful.”
Peterson sustained a back injury and had to remain inside the bus, standing in cold water, before he was rescued. He was in fair condition Friday evening at Wesley Medical Center, a hospital spokeswoman said.
An 8-year-old girl was the only child injured, and she was treated and released from El Dorado’s Susan B. Allen Hospital.
The stage for the accident was set up by sporadic heavy rain that fell throughout Wednesday and into Thursday morning, dumping about 3 inches of rain in the rural area that residents describe as craggy with shallow top soil.
Rain runs off quickly and into creeks. That’s why Muddy Creek was 4 feet deep Thursday – about four times its normal depth – and the crossing was so treacherous.
The bus was southbound on a gravel road along Hopkins Switch Road and 190th South. Area residents said there is an “S” curve where the crossing is located.
There is a “tight approach” to the crossing, said Gary Warner of the Kansas Highway Patrol, which is overseeing the investigation.
“It’s not perfectly aligned with the bridge,” he said. “There is a jog in the road before it reaches the bridge.”
Warner said the highway patrol was still trying to determine why Peterson decided to drive through the water.
Peterson, 63, is a fixture in the Douglass community. Besides serving as announcer at athletic games, he has worked at the high school as an assistant baseball coach, school resource officer and as a substitute bus driver off and on since 2007, said Rob Reynolds, superintendent for the Douglass school district.
“Joe is part of our community,” Reynolds said. “He’s recovering. Physically, he’s doing very well.”
Peterson also has worked for the highway patrol and as a Butler County sheriff’s deputy, said Butler County Sheriff Kelly Herzet.
Peterson was working as a substitute driver on the route Thursday, Reynolds said.
“He has driven the route before,” Reynolds said. “He knows all of the routes.”
Asked if the school district requires its bus drivers to observe the edict of “Turn Around Don’t Drown,” Reynolds said, “That’s our policy. There’s no reason to cross water.”
The highway patrol’s Warner said that warning is “pretty much standard.”
“We want drivers to know that any amount of water moving swiftly across the road will put them at risk of being swept off,” he said.
While Hilyard acknowledged there is a “funny curve” that lies before the crossing, he said there’s still time to see whether there is water on the crossing before reaching it.
He said Peterson shouldn’t have attempted to drive over the crossing.
“That accident never should have happened, I believe,” Hilyard said.
He said the water wasn’t over the crossing when he went to work Thursday morning. Plus, the regular bus driver – not Peterson – drove the route that morning.
“As long as everybody is safe,” Hilyard added, “it’s all good.”
Kathy Blair, who worked at Douglass High School when Peterson was there, said safety of children in the small community of about 1,700 was very important to him.
“This has to be crushing for him,” she said. “He’s helped many children. He’s a good member of our community.”
Crews spent most of Friday trying to remove the bus from the creek.
“It’s pretty labor intensive,” Warner said. “We don’t want to cause any more damage to the bus. It will be checked over.”
As for Hilyard, Carr saw both a dad and firefighter during the rescue.
“He knew what he had to do,” Carr said, “and kept a clear head.
Hilyard gave his children an extra hug Thursday night before they went to bed. He was up and gone before Claire and Dalton were awake Friday morning.
“My wife drove them to school,” he said.
Contributing: Stan Finger of The Eagle.