Click here to watch a video from Thursday's press conference in Red Cloud, Neb., that details the accident.
Showcase: More photos from the scene.
BLUE HILL, Neb. — They shared their grief.
They offered their prayers.
And they lit candles of hope during a memorial and prayer service Thursday for those killed and injured in a truck-school bus accident the day before near Blue Hill.
“I just want to say each one of these kids was a light in a dark world,” said Penny Drury, music teacher at Blue Hill Community Schools, speaking of two students and a 21-year-old man killed in the accident. Drury taught all three at the school.
“We need to take something from them so we can live on.”
A standing-room-only crowd packed the worship space at Blue Hill United Methodist Church and spilled out into the fellowship hall. There were many tears and embraces.
Pastors from the community's churches led the audience in the Lord's Prayer and several verses of “Amazing Grace.'' They also asked those in the crowd to offer kind words and memories of those hurt or killed.
A bus driven by Marla Wentworth, 59, of Red Cloud collided with a semitrailer truck loaded with hay bales shortly before 5 p.m. Wednesday at an unmarked gravel intersection south of Blue Hill, said Webster County Attorney Sara Bockstadter.
The crash killed Wentworth; the semi driver, Travis Witte, 21, of Blue Hill; and two of the seven students on the bus: Dustin Tesdahl, 18, and Caroline Thallman, 10, both of Blue Hill.
The bus was eastbound on one road and the semi northbound on the other. The impact forced both vehicles into an adjacent ditch, where they were engulfed in flames, Bockstadter said.
Five children, all between 6 and 10 years old, were taken to area hospitals.
Four were taken to Mary Lanning Healthcare in Hastings, and one was later transported to an Omaha hospital, said Lisa Brandt, spokeswoman for Mary Lanning.
The child flown to Omaha, a 7-year-old girl, was listed in serious condition Thursday at Children's Hospital & Medical Center, said hospital spokeswoman Cherie Lytle.
At the Hastings hospital, one girl had surgery for first-degree and “light second-degree” burns on her hands and feet, as well as lacerations. She is in stable condition, Brandt said.
One boy was in stable condition, and another boy was treated and released Wednesday night, she said.
“Our hearts go out to everyone who has been touched by this tragedy,” Bockstadter said Thursday. “We ask for your consideration as our communities begin to process what has happened and work toward healing.”
Although corn stood in one corner of the crash intersection and trees stood in another, Bockstadter declined to say if impaired visibility was a factor in the accident. A low-growing pasture separated the vehicles' paths of travel.
The crash remains under investigation by the Webster County Sheriff's Office and the Nebraska State Patrol.
The Blue Hill, Hastings, Lawrence and Red Cloud Fire and Rescue Squads, and the Hastings and Superior Police Departments also assisted.
The accident inflicted a heavy emotional toll on Blue Hill, a Webster County farming community of 867 people.
“This isn't supposed to happen,” said Teresa Hodson, whose two grade-school children were on a different bus Wednesday. “You're not supposed to lose a child.”
Laurie Kohmetscher, 46, lives several miles outside Blue Hill. She said her seventh-grade daughter, Halee, would have been on the bus involved in the crash, but one of her in-town friends invited her over after school.
When Kohmetscher picked up her daughter after work, she heard the terrible news.
“Just devastating,” she said. “It just hit everybody.”
Friends and relatives gathered to help console Norman and Penny Witte, the parents of Travis Witte. Penny Witte said her son had many loves: John Deere tractors, raising cattle, hunting and Husker football. But farming alongside his father topped them all.
“He always wanted to farm,” she said.
Wentworth, the bus driver, was the oldest of five siblings and mother of three adult children.
Karen Elliott, owner of Village Pharmacy in Red Cloud, fought back tears as she explained that Wentworth worked at the pharmacy between her bus driving duties. She was at work Wednesday before leaving to drive the kids.
“Marla was a wonderful person and an excellent employee,” Elliott said. “She was a very good friend and will be sadly missed.”
Dustin Tesdahl was a senior at Blue Hill Community Schools. He also was a ward of the state, according to court records. His foster mother, Jacqueline Kirchner of Blue Hill, said his status prevented her from talking about him to the newspaper.
But during the memorial service, Dustin's grandmother, Pat Lieb of Campbell, said her grandson was a loving child who enjoyed school and attending church services.
Mark and Cheryl Thallman, parents of Caroline Thallman, sent word of thanks to those who gathered in honor of their daughter and the others. The couple was at the hospital in Hastings to be near their other daughter, Allie, who was injured in the crash.
Those who knew Caroline said she was soft-spoken, but she lit up around friends.
The accident had the biggest impact on the school, attended by about 330 students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Superintendent Joe'l Ruybalid said school officials decided to hold classes Thursday so children, teachers and staff would have access to grief counselors.
Schools from four surrounding districts provided extra counselors, and community volunteers offered help to struggling students as well. Many students and staff used the counseling, Ruybalid said.
Bus routes ran as regularly scheduled. The superintendent said less than half the students use bus service.
Counselors will be available again today, and administrators also decided to play tonight's scheduled football game, believing it will be a rallying point for a hurting town.
“It's not just a school tragedy, it's a community tragedy,” he said.
The accident hit especially close to home for bus driver Renee Fielder. She was driving a route within a couple of miles of Wentworth's when she saw smoke from the crash.
Within minutes, she knew it was her friend.
Still emotionally fragile after the accident, Fielder, 52, said the first boy she picked up Thursday morning gave her a hug.
A few stops later, one of the fathers came to the bus with his child.
“He said, ‘Thanks for keeping our kids safe, Renee, you're doing a great job.'”
World-Herald staff writer Kevin Cole contributed to this report.
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