BLUE HILL, Neb. — Their 10-year-old daughter died in the school bus crash one year ago.
Their purpose survived.
Mark and Cheryl Thallman of rural Blue Hill say they are doing as well as can be expected one year after the death of their Caroline. She and three others were killed last Sept. 5 when a semitrailer and a school bus collided at a gravel road intersection southeast of Blue Hill. The accident left five other students injured.
The Thallmans have passed the year mourning a child who in some ways was the opposite of their reserved selves. Caroline sang, danced and shined in bold colors and zebra prints. She adored her friends and family, and she touched more lives than her parents could have imagined before her death.
The couple knew their own lives could have been destroyed a year ago in the flaming wreckage of a school bus and a semi.
All but for their Allie.
Their youngest daughter was one of the injured children. She was just a little more than a mile from home when paramedics rushed her to a hospital some 30 miles away in Hastings.
A pediatrician told the parents that their 8-year-old girl would recover from cuts and scrapes, but she would need counseling for emotional trauma. The doctor told the parents they should get counseling, too.
In those dark hours of their darkest day, they knew they would take the doctor's advice.
“Something like this can just ruin your life if you don't have a purpose,” Mark Thallman said. “We spent the first two days after the accident at the hospital, and it made it pretty clear to us what our purpose was — we couldn't let it ruin Allie's life.”
It will never be clear exactly why the crash occurred, nine miles southeast of Blue Hill, a farming community of 936 in south-central Nebraska.
The semi, loaded with hay bales, was northbound on one gravel road. The bus carrying seven students from Blue Hill Community Schools was eastbound on the other.
The force of the collision sent the vehicles into the northeast corner ditch. Hay bales blocked the bus' back door and the split door on the side was jammed shut. Two farmers who arrived first on the scene broke out windows, crawled into the burning bus and helped get the surviving children out.
Flames engulfed the wreckage and sent a signal of black smoke over northern Webster County. Firefighters and paramedics from four departments responded, tending to the children and transporting them to hospitals.
The Thallmans said they deeply appreciate all those who came to the aid of the children that day, but especially the farmers who greatly risked their own safety. The Thallmans met with both of the men over the past year to thank them personally.
“We just owe them a debt that we can never repay,” Mark Thallman said.
Five students, between the ages of 6 and 10, made it out. The crash took the lives of Caroline and Dustin Tesdahl, 18, a senior at Blue Hill High School.
Also killed were semi driver Travis Witte of rural Blue Hill, a 21-year-old who farmed alongside his father, and bus driver Marla Wentworth, 59, a grandmother who also held down a job at a Red Cloud pharmacy.
Law enforcement officers investigated the accident for about a month, but they couldn't pinpoint a cause.
A grazed cattle pasture on the southwest corner of the intersection did not obstruct the drivers' line of sight. The intersection was not marked with stop or yield signs. The data boxes in each vehicle, which may have revealed speeds, were destroyed by the fire.
Investigators decided two factors could have contributed to the accident: the bus driver failed to yield to the semi, which was to the right of the bus. The semi driver did not have the commercial driver's license required to operate the truck.
A day after the crash, while the Thallmans and some other parents were still with their children in hospitals, hundreds gathered at a church in Blue Hill. Many still reeled from the shock of what had happened.
They prayed, held each other and wept.
An estimated 400 people attended the Sept. 11 funeral at United Methodist Church in Blue Hill. It seemed like almost as many stopped at the Thallmans' house with food and condolences in the days before and after the service.
Mourners saw a slideshow that chronicled Caroline's life. With each successive image, she grew from a baby with shiny blond hair to a 10-year-old just starting fifth grade.
She was an excellent student with a strong aptitude for math. She was organized and liked planning not only her days but those of her family. She enjoyed reading and listening to popular music and was passionate about fashion. Most of all, she loved to dance.
The spring before the accident, Mark announced that the family could take a vacation at the end of the summer. He asked the girls where they wanted to go.
“New York,” Caroline blurted almost before he finished speaking.
Mark, who researches beef cattle genetics for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Cheryl, who works in a state office that manages welfare benefits, weren't convinced. But Caroline planned the trip, including airfare, accommodations and restaurants, all within the budget Mark had set.
During their five days in the city, they visited the Statue of Liberty, saw “Mary Poppins” on Broadway, hung out in Times Square and shopped at Juicy Couture on Fifth Avenue.
“I'm confident that was the highlight of Caroline's life,” he said. “She was never happier.”
Months after the funeral, friends approached the Thallmans about organizing a dance recital in Caroline's honor.
The recital was held April 14 at the high school gym. Students from the Hastings studio that Caroline attended performed for more than two hours. The event culminated with members of Caroline's class singing the Lee Ann Womack song “I Hope You Dance.”
“I was trying not to cry so the girls in her class wouldn't cry,” Cheryl said.
Organizers also held auctions and raised about $12,000 at the event. The money doubled the amount in a fund named after Caroline that will award $1,000 college scholarships to two graduating seniors from Blue Hill. The first two scholarships were given in May, and the plan is to keep the fund going for every class in school at the time of the accident.
The tragedy hit the school hard. Every teacher, every student was affected, said Superintendent Joe'l Ruybalid.
Throughout the year, reminders of the heartache surfaced constantly. Students wore memorial T-shirts and bracelets. Opposing athletic teams took up collections and offered tributes before games. Speeches at the graduation ceremony mentioned those lost and those affected by the crash.
The school also established a character award to be given annually in honor of Dustin Tesdahl. Because the senior loved to run, his friends started a 5K run named after Tesdahl to help fund the award.
It was a long, difficult year, Ruybalid said, but everyone learned lessons about love, loss and how short life can be.
“The students learned a lot about supporting one another and the support they have around them,” he said.
The school did not organize a remembrance Thursday. Administrators were advised by counselors that it was best not to.
Nonetheless, it was on many minds.
On their living room sofa, Allie between them, the couple shared story after story about Caroline. They smiled often, laughed frequently.
And then they would pause, their smiles vanishing like sunlight when a cloud passes overhead.
“I think the hardest thing is we're just never going to know what Caroline would have grown up to do with her life,” the father said.
He figures she would have gotten a law degree, because she loved to formulate and execute arguments. Maybe she would have run a big corporation.
Her mother thought of other things Caroline never got to experience.
“I wanted her to have a kid like herself,” Cheryl said.
Mark thought of more good advice he got on the day of the funeral. A friend confided to him that she had also lost a child and that the stress of such a loss can strain even good marriages. She recommended a book, which the Thallmans read and found helpful.
Keeping their marriage strong is important to them and Allie, they said.
She's 9 now, with big eyes and dark hair to her shoulders. She's quiet around strangers, but outgoing at school. She likes books and American Girl dolls and her kittens and dog. She also likes to dance — she performed twice at the memorial recital.
She rides a school bus twice a week after school to a sitter near town, but no longer takes the rural route.
Last week Allie walked with her mom down a mowed path to a pasture on her family's property. They passed through a couple of gates, and an electric fence to keep the cattle at bay, and they arrived at Caroline's memorial.
Her cremated remains rest near a stand of trees and a creek. The marker features a zebra motif and one of Caroline's favorite sayings, “Dance like no one is watching. Sing like no one is listening. Live each day as if it were your last.”
Cheryl said she tries to take the words to heart.
“I've tried not to be in my grief all the time.”
When Caroline occupied the bedroom at the top of the stairs, Mark used to try to sneak past at night to avoid waking her. More often than not, she called out for him.
Sometimes he'd give her a second kiss and tell her to get to sleep. Sometimes he sat on her bed just to hear what was on her mind.
Now, every so often, he still goes in.
He sits down.
And he thinks about the past 11 years.