ND Highway Patrol backs away from first statements made in train-bus collision near Larimore

LARIMORE, N.D. - North Dakota Highway Patrol officers are stepping back from statements made earlier on the investigation into the train-bus collision outside of Larimore earlier this week, in the wake of an email from one of the victim's parents...
A North Dakota state trooper investigates the scene where a Larimore school bus collided with a train east of Larimore on Grand Forks County Road 4 on Monday, Jan. 5, 2014. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service

LARIMORE, N.D. – North Dakota Highway Patrol officers are stepping back from statements made earlier on the investigation into the train-bus collision outside of Larimore earlier this week, in the wake of an email from one of the victim’s parents suggesting the school bus was stuck in place on the train tracks at the time of the collision.

Lt. Tom Iverson of the Highway Patrol said it is too soon to draw conclusions about whether the 62-year-old driver of the school bus, Max Danner, had a medical complication at the time of the crash.

“Until the autopsy is completed, we will not have any information regarding any potential medical episode,” Iverson said Thursday.

Iverson’s statement counters statements another patrol officer has made about the investigation, namely that the accident was likely caused by driver error.

An empty train collided with a school bus about 3:40 p.m. Monday just east of Larimore, killing Danner and Cassidy Sandstrom, a 17-year-old high school senior, and sending at least 10 of the 12 other students aboard the bus to regional hospitals.

In an email sent to family and friends in the days following the crash, Judy and Paul Sandstrom wrote that their daughter, Cassidy, had ushered students to the emergency door at the back of the bus after Danner “slumped over” in his seat, leaving the bus in the middle of the train tracks and in the path of an oncoming train.

The email says the Sandstrom family heard from other children aboard the bus that Cassidy rushed to the front of the bus, unbuckled Danner and tried to hoist him out of the seat in an effort to back the bus out of harm’s way.

Barb Danner, the driver’s wife, said Wednesday that Max had a history of heart problems, but that she did not know whether a medical issue played a role in the crash.

“I just know my husband was an extremely safe bus driver,” she said.

In the meantime, investigators are reviewing additional evidence in the crash, including a video taken from the front of the train, Iverson said.

Highway Patrol investigators and BNSF representatives were expected to review the video Thursday, but due to the snowstorm passing through Grand Forks, they pushed the viewing back to Friday.

Iverson also said the engine control module – known as a “black box” in aircraft – is yet to be retrieved from the bus and sent to an outside facility for downloading.

The device could have information relevant to the crash, he said, but it is difficult to tell. Depending on the make and model of the engine control module, the amount of information on the device varies, he said.

“One of the items we would be interested in is sudden deceleration,” he said. “That could potentially be on there, but that I do not know.”

Iverson did not know whether a similar device had been recovered from the BNSF train involved in the crash.

Ten children were initially transported to Altru Hospital the day of the crash. Six have been discharged from Altru Hospital, and one remains there, according to an update released by the hospital at 8:15 a.m. Thursday.

Three others were transferred to other hospitals in the region, among them Matt Sandstrom, Cassidy’s brother, who was transferred to Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota in Minneapolis.