LINCOLN — When he saw a semitrailer truck collide with the Blue Hill school bus, Phil Petr jumped from his pickup to help children trapped in the wreckage.
That doesn't make him a hero, Petr said.
It just means he's human.
“I think everybody would do what I did,” he said Friday. “When you look through the window and you seen those little kids looking at you, why wouldn't you?”
Petr and Ron Meyer, both lifelong residents of the Blue Hill, Neb., area, were the first on the scene of the Sept. 5 crash that took the lives of two students and the drivers of the bus and the truck.
Even as members of the south-central Nebraska farm community tried to grasp the magnitude of their loss, word spread about how it could have been worse if not for the actions of the two men.
This week, speaking on the floor of the U.S. Senate, Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska commended the volunteer rescue personnel and others who responded to the crash. But he singled out Petr and Meyer, calling them “guardian angels.”
“Special recognition is owed to average citizens who happen upon horrific scenes and do heroic things,” Johanns said during his Senate address.
Petr, 46, happened upon the scene because he was driving behind the semi loaded with hay bales as it headed north on a gravel road near Blue Hill. He slowed down as he approached the intersection because he could see the dust cloud roiled by the eastbound bus.
The semi struck the right side of the bus, and the force of the collision carried the vehicles into a ditch along the northeastern corner of the intersection.
As he ran to the wreckage, Petr encountered one boy who had gotten out of the bus, although he's not sure how. The boy said others were still inside.
By now, the tinder-dry grass in the ditch had caught fire.
Petr tried the main side door, but it wouldn't open. Hay bales blocked his path to the back door of the upright bus.
So he returned to his pickup for a pry bar.
By then, Meyer, who was dropping off mineral blocks to cattle less than a half-mile away, had arrived.
The men used the bar to smash four of the passenger windows, but the terrified children wouldn't come to them.
Meyer boosted the 6-foot-4 Petr so he could get inside. Once in, he handed out three of the surviving children to Meyer, one by one.
Meanwhile, the fourth child crawled out through broken glass at the bottom of the main door.
By then, the smoke was overwhelming and flames would soon engulf both vehicles. Volunteer rescuers also started arriving to care for the injured children.
“It was so fast,” Petr said. “It gives me the chills just talking about it.”
The crash claimed the lives of students Caroline Thallman, 10, and Dustin Tesdahl, 18, both of Blue Hill. Also killed were semi driver Travis Witte, 21, of Blue Hill, and bus driver Marla Wentworth, 59, of Red Cloud. All four died at the scene.
The five survivors all were taken to area hospitals, two were admitted and one was flown to Children's Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha. All are now home.
Becky Alber was at her son's house the afternoon of the crash, waiting for the bus to drop off her 7-year-old granddaughter, Taylor Alber. She also saw the collision and may have placed the first call to 911, but she couldn't leave the house because she was caring for a 2-year-old grandchild.
“I think they're wonderful,” she said, referring to all who rushed to the crash. “My granddaughter probably wouldn't be here if not for them.”
Meyer, 54, also waved off the word “hero” when asked about the ordeal. He called himself a good Samaritan who did what anyone would do for children in trouble.
“We're getting way too much recognition for the passers-by,” he said.
“Hero” should be reserved for those who don't risk their safety by happenstance, Meyer said.
He said he stands in true admiration of volunteer firefighters and rescuers who put themselves in harm's way to help others, time after time.
“Heroes are the people who wear pagers,” he said, “and we owe them our gratitude and support.”
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