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Crash haunts drivers

Veteran Glyndon, Minn., school bus driver Wes Mikkelsen pieces together students' stories from fleeting glimpses and 15-second conversation snippets.

Bus driver Wes Mikkelsen greets his passengers

Veteran Glyndon, Minn., school bus driver Wes Mikkelsen pieces together students' stories from fleeting glimpses and 15-second conversation snippets.

He knows the kid grappling with problems at home, the shrinking violet and the angry child looking to start a fight. He can pick out the star students, who get lost in their books during their ride. He can also spot the struggling students, who throw away homework assignments before they hop on.

"All school bus drivers are different, but we all really know our kids," Mikkelsen said.

This sort of personal connection to youthful passengers made news of the fatal school bus crash near Cottonwood, Minn., deeply unsettling for Mikkelsen and fellow area drivers. That, and the harrowing reminder that tragedy can sometimes strike even when a driver seemingly does everything correct.

The crash, which happened Tuesday afternoon when a van broadsided the bus on Minnesota Highway 23, claimed the lives of four children ages 9 to 13.

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"I think every driver in the state today has a broken heart over this," said Shelly Jonas of the Minnesota School Bus Operator's Association.

As Mikkelsen headed out on his Highway 10 route just after 7 a.m. Wednesday, he focused on the usual frigid morning worries: students decked out in trendy but flimsy outfits and drivers scuttling to work on slick roads. But the Cottonwood tragedy haunted him, lodged in the back of his mind.

"Obviously, it's the No. 1 conversation here today," said Brad Redmond, transportation director for West Fargo Public Schools. "This is a school bus driver's worst fear, and it's in our backyard almost."

Jonas said she fielded some 20 phone calls today from association members wondering if there's anything they could do to help out the Cottonwood community. For them, she says, it's excruciating to empathize with the Cottonwood driver, Dennis Deveraux, who helped injured students out the door of his overturned bus.

"Students become family," said West Fargo driver John Blazek. "You're with them from the time they get braces on their teeth to the time they get their driver's licenses. I can only begin to imagine what this driver is going through after losing this adoptive family."

Blazek describes his job as a bona fide obsession. It hooks you, he says, through small gestures - from the hugs he gets from second-graders to the card that arrived this Christmas from Atlanta, where a student moved last fall.

Perhaps because his seated position brings him down to children's eye level, he's a sounding board and confidant. He hears about crushes and the holiday multitasking that students in broken homes handle: "If you don't work one day, you miss your kids."

Says Moorhead bus driver Korreena Taylor, an authority on younger students' pets, siblings and favorite subjects: "Some people think we just have a job to do. But a lot of us really care about our kids."

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For some drivers, most chilling about the news from Cottonwood was the sense that the driver couldn't have done much to dodge the tragedy. Authorities were still investigating the exact cause of the accident Wednesday.

"There are things we can't control," said Redmond, "and that's the part that's really scary."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

Bus driver Wes Mikkelsen greets his passengers

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