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Battle Creek City Administrator and rescue captain Mike Fleer had a mouthful of toothpaste when his pager sounded Monday morning.
The horrifying message on the screen: School bus collision with semi. Unknown injuries.
Fleer spit and ran.
Similar scenes erupted at the bathroom sinks or kitchen tables of emergency responders in about a dozen other places in the northeast Nebraska community of 1,200 as Battle Creek's civil defense sirens sounded.
It was about 7:20 a.m.
Minutes earlier, a tank truck carrying vegetable oil collided with a school bus that was crossing fog-shrouded U.S. Highway 275 east of town at the intersection of what locals know as the Old Pierce Road.
Thirteen children were aboard the yellow bus, but rescuers didn't know that yet. The students were country kids from kindergarten-age to eighth-grade on a routine morning ride to their schools, either Battle Creek Elementary or St. John Lutheran in Battle Creek.
The impact of the collision near the bus's right rear tires spun the bus nearly 180 degrees clockwise and into the divided, four-lane highway's north ditch.
Battle Creek's volunteers were a bit more than four miles away. In five vehicles, including a flatbed pickup truck equipped with a hydraulic tool for prying open crushed vehicles, the rescuers raced north down Nebraska Highway 121 and then east on Highway 275.
Fog limited visibility to about 400 yards.
A dispatcher provided more disheartening information: The bus company estimated that more than a dozen children were aboard.
“When you don't know what you're up against, it's a little harrowing,” Fleer said. “We didn't know the condition of the children or anything like that.”
The Battle Creek crew arrived minutes after fire and rescue personnel from nearby Norfolk. Norfolk Fire Chief Scott Cordes directed triage operations. Rescuers treated a few injured children still in the bus. Passers-by helped calm and comfort the walking injured. Children complaining of neck or back pain were strapped to long boards for immobilization as a precaution against aggravating possible spinal injuries.
“The children were shivering,” Fleer said. “Some were walking around a little dazed. And they were frightened.”
Ray Sencenbaugh, head of the emergency department at Faith Regional Health Service in Norfolk, said two of the students suffered head injuries serious enough — lacerations or trauma — to have them transported to hospitals in Omaha.
Courtney Livingston, 14, went to Creighton University Medical Center and Bailey Hurlburt, 11, was admitted to Children's Hospital & Medical Center. They rode by ambulance rather than by helicopter because of lingering fog.
Hurlburt was in serious condition at Children's Hospital, according to a hospital spokeswoman. Livingston was in serious but stable condition at Creighton.
The driver of the school bus, Larry Prauner, 73, of Battle Creek, and the driver of the truck, Stanley Jauer, 63, of Hinton, Iowa, were not injured. Both were using seat belts.
The bus had no seat belts for passengers. The vehicle was a 66-passenger bus seated for 59 passengers.
Battle Creek Schools Superintendent Jay Bellar said there were “a lot of anxious moments” at the hospital as parents arrived to find their children.
“We were very fortunate that injuries weren't more severe,” he said. “We're a small community where everyone knows everybody and it hurts when it happens.”
The Battle Creek School District has about 416 students.
Bellar said all 13 children on the bus were treated or checked at the hospital, and most suffered minor injuries.
All but the two most seriously injured were treated and released by midday. School officials and law enforcement authorities had not released the names of the other injured students.
Nicholas Onnen, principal of St. John Lutheran, said four students from the 130-student parochial school were on the bus, including Bailey.
The two Battle Creek schools contract bus service from Mid States School Bus based in Wayne, Neb. The company runs buses on four routes every morning and afternoon for children living on farms and acreages across the district's 143 square miles.
Nebraska State Patrol Trooper Justin Koch gave this account of the accident:
The bus was northbound on 549th Avenue about 7:15 a.m. It crossed Highway 275 in heavy fog, colliding with the westbound truck. Koch said neither driver saw the other vehicle because of the dense fog. Speed was not a factor, he said. The speed limit at the site four miles west of Norfolk is 65 mph.
The investigation closed a portion of the highway for several hours. The crash remained under investigation late Monday.
Dave Volbrecht, president of Mid States, said he was waiting to receive accident reports from the State Patrol and his driver.
“We're mainly concerned about the kids,'' he said.
The Norfolk Daily News contributed to this report.
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