LARIMORE, N.D. — Two months after a train collided with a school bus near here, the investigation is over, and the conclusion is driver error led to the accident.
North Dakota Highway Patrol investigators found the school bus – which had just dropped children off in a neighborhood about a half mile east of Larimore – came to an abrupt stop with its front end over the railroad tracks at about 3:35 p.m. on Jan. 5, according to a Monday morning news release from the Highway Patrol.
No more than two seconds later, a BNSF locomotive – carting 47 empty train cars and traveling at 43 mph – collided with the bus’ front folding doors, killing the 62-year-old bus driver and educator Max Danner and 17-year-old Larimore High School senior Cassidy Sandstrom and sending 10 of the 12 other children aboard the bus to regional hospitals, the release said.
North Dakota Highway Patrol investigators concluded that Danner did not suffer a medical complication at the time of the accident.
“Mr. Danner did have a significant heart condition, but it did not play a role in the crash,” Dr. Mark Koponen, deputy coroner with the Grand Forks County Coroner’s Office, said in the news release.
Witnesses told investigators the bus was being driven “normally” through the neighborhood just before the crash.
Danner waved to a passing motorist in the neighborhood before the crash, the release said.
Video footage from the front of the train showed the bus “significant(ly) breaking” before the tracks, which are marked with stop signs and crossbuck signs, or white X’s bearing the words “railroad crossing,” according to the release. It appeared that Danner was in an upright position in the driver’s seat.
The release goes on to say there was no movement seen in the front end of the school bus.
In the days following the crash, conflicting accounts circulated as to what happened on the bus leading up to the accident. Cassidy Sandstrom’s parents said in an email their daughter had rushed to the front of the bus to try to back it off of the tracks.
Interviews with the children aboard the school bus backed up Highway Patrol investigators’ findings.
The investigation also determined the train blew its whistle about a quarter mile from the railroad crossing and again before it reached the intersection.
The bus was found to be in proper working order, with an inspection of the bus and the bus’ engine control module – more commonly known as a black box – turning up no signs of mechanical deficiencies.
No criminal charges are pending or expected, the release said.
Two months later, Superintendent of Larimore Public Schools Roger Abbe said students and faculty are doing as well as could be expected.
“We’re still providing whatever supports we need to for individual students,” he said.
When asked if the school district has made any policy changes as a result of the accident, Abbe said the district has been looking into the possibility of putting seat belts in district school buses.
Meanwhile, a bill prompted by the accident is making its way through the North Dakota Legislature.
Senate Bill 2315 would raise the maximum amount in damages for which a school district – and other public entities – could be found liable in the event of an accident. The limit would be raised from $500,000 to $1 million.
The bill unanimously passed the North Dakota Senate on Feb. 18. The House Political Subdivision Committee will discuss the bill at 10:30 a.m. on Friday.
Another bill that would have established a one-time emergency fund for the victims of the accident failed in the Senate.