School officials were not surprised that a 74-year-old bus driver couldn’t evacuate his burning bus in a 2017 fatal school bus crash because he had mobility issues.
However, the reasons the driver’s 16-year-old passenger couldn’t escape remained unclear, according to reports newly released by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Some bus drivers speculated in interviews with federal officials that the 16-year-old wouldn’t have left the driver alone.
Dozens of pages of reports detailed safety, road, weather and other factors in the Oakland, Iowa, bus crash on Dec. 12, 2017, that claimed two lives.
Donnie Hendricks, 74, and Megan Klindt, 16, were the only occupants on the bus that morning in rural Pottawattamie County. They were unable to escape flames that broke out from the engine compartment after the bus got stuck in a ditch, federal officials said.
Interviews with bus drivers, the Riverside High School principal and Hendricks’ wife revealed additional details.
Hendricks and Klindt were friendly toward each other, and as the first pickup, Klindt helped make sure kids got on and off safely.
“She was one of his favorites,” Kathleen Hendricks, Hendricks’ wife, told an investigator in an interview.
The day of the fire was Donnie Hendricks’ last work day before he would undergo back surgery two days later.
He suffered from a host of medical issues — high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, among others — but his most painful problem was chronic low back pain from a previous spinal fusion surgery.
Fellow bus drivers said they saw Hendricks walk with a cane at work and before boarding the bus. Kathleen Hendricks said he used a cane and a walker, but for longer distances. And, he was comfortable sitting, especially in the bus seat that was oriented higher up, she told investigators.
“The principal and one of the drivers advised that they knew if an emergency occurred that the crash driver would be unlikely to be able to self-extricate,” according to an investigator’s report. “However, the family denies that the driver’s back problems affected his ability to operate a motor vehicle. The driver’s deteriorating physical condition was noted by several coworkers and the principal of the local high school.”
According to the State of Iowa Department of Education, a school bus driver must be of “sufficient physical capacity to operate the bus effectively and to render assistance to the passengers in case of illness or injury….”
“It drives me crazy that she couldn’t get out of that school bus. You know, I just don’t get that,” Riverside High School Principal David Gute said. “And I get him. I mean, we’re talking mobility. I get him, why he couldn’t get off. Just, I don’t understand how she couldn’t get off the bus.”
When first responders extinguished the fire, they found Klindt’s body on the floor next to the driver’s seat.
A report also said that the bus’ fire extinguisher was not readily accessible to the driver or the passenger, despite policy to the contrary.
According to Iowa school transportation code: “The extinguisher shall be located in the driver’s compartment readily accessible to the driver and passengers.”
The extinguisher was located in an unmarked compartment behind the interior rearview mirror, above the front windshield, the report said.
The NTSB will hold a public board meeting in Washington D.C. on June 18 to determine the probable cause of the fire.
Klindt’s family has sued the Riverside School District, claiming negligence and wrongful death. The case is set to go to trial next March.