Kenai ski teams on their way home after Friday bus crash

dkelly@adn.comJanuary 10, 2014 

Update: 2:45 p.m.: Kenai-area students involved in an early Friday morning crash are on their way back to the Kenai Peninsula from Valdez Saturday, according to an email from the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

A charter bus driven by the owner of Unique Bus Charters left Valdez around 1:30 p.m. carrying all of the students from the Kenai Central High School and Skyview High School ski teams who were evaluated at the Providence Valdez Medical Center, except one student who was medavaced to an Anchorage hospital Friday and has since been released, the email said.

Travel time is between 10 and 12 hours

Previous story:
A charter bus carrying Kenai-area students to a cross-country ski meet collided with a state Department of Transportation truck on the Richardson Highway on Friday morning, seriously injuring the bus driver, officials said.

Vernon Brown, 72, of Kenai was eventually flown to Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage to be treated for his injuries, said Beth Ipsen, Alaska State Troopers spokeswoman.

The crash was reported to authorities at 11:44 a.m. on a straight stretch of highway about two miles from the start of Thompson Pass. Snow was blowing, creating visibility problems, Ipsen said.

The bus, chartered by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District from the Kenai-based Unique Bus Charters company, was following the large DOT truck, Ipsen said.

The truck, similar to a snowplow truck, was towing a trailer, said Jeremy Woodrow, a DOT communications officer. The DOT driver was identified by troopers as 60-year-old James Woodhouse of Valdez.

Ipsen said the DOT truck had slowed to make a left turn onto a pullout on the other side of the highway.

"Due to the blowing snow, the driver of the school bus didn't see the turn signal and didn't see the (truck) slowing down, and rear-ended it," Ipsen said.

The charter bus went into a ditch, pinning and seriously injuring Brown, Ipsen said.

Brown has worked for the charter company for more than 15 years, said Margaret Baxter, a spokeswoman for Unique Bus Charters. He also works as a bus driver for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and has a good driving record, she said.

An ambulance brought Brown to a Valdez hospital, from which he was later transported to Anchorage. He is being treated for serious but non-life-threatening injuries, Ipsen said.

Baxter said this is the first major driving accident in the charter company's history.

The bus was carrying 49 people -- 43 students and 6 adults -- from the Kenai Peninsula to Valdez for the ski meet, said Pegge Erkeneff, a spokeswoman for the Kenai school district. That count included 28 members of the Kenai Central High School cross-country ski team and 15 from the Skyview High School team, as well as coaches from both teams, Erkeneff said.

One student was thrown against the seat in front of him and was transported by ambulance to the hospital with minor injuries, along with the DOT driver, who said he had back pain, Ipsen said.

The rest of the students were picked up by Valdez City School District buses and taken to be evaluated by a triage team at Hermon Hutchens Elementary School in Valdez, Erkeneff said. After that, several students were taken to Providence Valdez Medical Center for further evaluation, she said.

Mitch Michaud, chair of the Kenai Nordic Ski Club booster club, said two of his children are members of the Kenai Central High School ski team and were on board the bus when the crash happened.

Despite spotty reception, he reached his 16-year-old daughter Madeleine on her cellphone after the crash. She said that when the bus came to a sudden stop, "that was really scary, like slowing down really fast," Michaud said.

"A lot of kids got bounced," he said.

Madeleine told him she hurt her shoulder but was otherwise OK.

"I think she's just glad that nothing really worse happened," Michaud said.

Michaud said he was comforted that the students were aboard a charter bus rather than a standard school bus and that Unique Charters typically transports teams to compete in Fairbanks.

It's uncommon for Kenai schools to travel the roughly 450 miles to Valdez. The teams usually plan to make the trip every four years, Michaud said.

The bus left Thursday, and the students stayed in Palmer on Thursday night before heading out for Valdez the next day. The students' first race of the Valdez Invitational was supposed to start at 3:30 p.m. on Friday, with races continuing Saturday, Michaud said.

But in a statement Friday evening, the school district said that the teams will not compete in the Valdez Invitational at all this weekend.

"Unique Charters is sending a replacement bus for the teams, which plans to leave Valdez and drive back to the central peninsula midday," the statement said.

By about 6:50 p.m. Friday, most of the students who had gone to the hospital had been treated and released, and were eating a spaghetti dinner, Erkenoff said in an email. She said a few were still waiting at the hospital to be evaluated.

"I thank all of the staff from Valdez City Schools, the Valdez Emergency Services, Valdez Police, personnel at the Valdez Hospital, and the Alaska State Troopers for their immediate and professional response to today's accident," Steve Atwater, superintendent of the Kenai school district, said in a statement. "The location of the accident made the response difficult, we are thankful that these agencies are so well trained."

He also thanked local families who volunteered to bring food to the students and opened their homes to parents who came on the trip.

Reach Devin Kelly at or 257-4314.


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