HANCOCK, Minn. – The driver of the Hancock Public School van that collided with a semi Monday afternoon at the intersection of a gravel and paved county road in far western Minnesota allegedly did not yield to the oncoming semi, officials said.
The crash just before 4 p.m. Monday, about 12 miles west of Benson, injured the van driver and all seven students, age 10 to 16, in the van, several seriously. The semi driver was not hurt.
Swift County Sheriff John Holtz said at a news conference Tuesday in Hancock that the seven students were apparently not wearing seatbelts. Holtz was uncertain if it was illegal to not wear seatbelts in school vans equipped with them. He was checking with the Minnesota State Patrol on that matter.
The semi, driven by Jeremy Beyer, 43, Danvers, was traveling at about 50 mph east on County Road 20 when the driver said it appeared the school van was going to yield but then entered the intersection from County Road 63, Holtz said. The 10-passenger school van, driven by Judith Van Eps, 68, Hancock, was traveling at about 20 to 30 mph, Holtz said. The semi was unable to stop, Holtz said.
As of Tuesday morning, students Gaige Sanderson, 16, Harleigh Schlief, 16, and Savannah Schlief, 14, were in critical condition, a Swift County Sheriff’s Office news release said. All three are from Danvers. Natasha Schlief, 12, and Blade Schlief, 10, both of Danvers, and Korah Schroeder, 10, of Holloway, were listed in stable condition Tuesday morning, the release said.
Hancock Public School Superintendent Loren Hacker, who was also at the news conference, said that one student was being released from the hospital, and another two are expected to be released soon, Hacker said the three students in critical condition have back, neck and head injuries. A seventh student had been treated and released.
Van Eps was also expected to be released from the hospital Tuesday, Hacker said. She has been employed by the school since 2012.
“She has driven this route many times,” Hacker said.
The release of one student from the hospital and the expected release of two more was encouraging news in what Hacker described as a difficult day for the school district. “It’s an unusual day in our district. I don’t know how else to describe it,” Hacker said.
In response to the crash, the school district had staff meet prior to classes so they could prepare to talk with students, Hacker said. The school also made counselors available to the students.
“It’s a shock,” Hacker said of the crash. But the school and community can lean on each other for support, Hacker said.
“We have a really strong faith-based community here. It’s tight-knit,” Hacker said. “We have good times and bad times.” The community rejoices in the good times and shares the sadness in the bad, he said.
“I really believe this will draw us closer together,” Hacker said of the school and community.