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Mat-Su school buses slide off icy roads

Zaz Hollander
A vehicle traveling northbound on the Seward Highway lost control and rolled multiple times. According to a friend of the driver, the driver was not injured.
Erik Hill
A school bus slid off Edlund Road Friday morning, November 22, 2013. Two students and the driver were initially taken to the hospital for evaluation. There was a report of a third student later taken to hospital for evaluation but the other 11 students are OK.
Casey Cook
Thomas Green gave up waiting for a People Mover bus and decided to walk down 15th Avenue near Lake Otis Parkway on Friday morning, November 22, 2013. The road was closed due to icy conditions, and bus service was suspended for about three hours.
Erik Hill
Alaska State Trooper Doug Massie's pickup blocks traffic at Vine Road near Wasilla Wednesday around noon. Troopers closed the road Friday morning due to icy conditions and multiple vehicles getting stuck.
BRENT ZOELLNER

WASILLA -- Mat-Su Borough School District officials considered closing elementary schools around 8 a.m. Friday morning when freezing rain began glazing Valley roads.

But with students waiting for buses and parents headed to work, district officials decided the safest thing to do was to keep buses running as usual. That's when conditions deteriorated, roads turned treacherous and the accidents began.

One bus carrying 14 Snowshoe Elementary students overturned near Fairview Loop Road, sending four children and the driver to the hospital with minor injuries a district official described as bumps and bruises.

A bus carrying students up Settlers Bay hill was hit by another vehicle trying to pass it, Mat-Su Borough officials said. Another bus was rear-ended as it stopped on the Parks Highway near Museum Drive for a jackknifed semi-truck, one of two 18-wheelers involved in accidents Friday.

Six other buses got stuck.

Mat-Su school superintendent Deena Paramo said the district decided to keep all schools open as of 4 or 5 a.m. Friday when forecasted overnight freezing rain didn't materialize. Middle and high school buses out before 7 a.m. encountered no problems.

Then, when the freezing rain started around 8 a.m., district officials decided it would be safer to keep buses running than go back given the amount of travel necessary either way and the number of students standing at bus stops already.

"Anchorage has about 3,000 square miles, we're about 25,000. We just have so much distance here," Paramo said. "We did pay attention to the weather report. We did pay attention to the troopers' report. When the weather turned bad we were already en route."

The situation was confused by an erroneous 8:45 a.m. email announcing elementary school were closed. Within 30 minutes, district spokeswoman Catherine Esary sent out another announcement apologizing for the incorrect email and text messages.

Some families made the trip to school in their own vehicles and regretted it.

A few parents who drove their children to Tanaina Elementary on Friday morning walked in crying, shaken by the drive and the layer of ice that coated their windshields so heavily they could hardly see out, one staffer said.

Many parents, like Wasilla resident Shannon Ingle, chose to keep their children home.

Ingle, whose sons attend Wasilla High School and Iditarod Elementary, thought the district was wrong to stay open. But she also thinks parents need to decide what's right for their children.

"I opened my door this morning and stuck my hand out and said, "Hmm. That's rain and there's a thick glaze of ice on my second-story windows. It's kind of a no brainer," Ingle said Friday afternoon. "If it looks dangerous, keep your kids at home."

Other parents put their children on the bus and hoped for the best.

"I'm just gonna sit here and worry, I think, until about 3:30," Terri Chvastasz Trask said early Friday afternoon. Her two Wasilla Middle School students left on their bus before road conditions turned treacherous.

Trask lives just off Knik-Goose Bay and Vine roads, both closed at times on Friday. Alaska State Troopers blocked hilly Vine Road for hours; a dip in the road at one point held some 20 cars in the ditch, blocked or stuck in the road, tires spinning.

"It's got to be frustrating for the school district," Trask said. "You can only count on weather reports so much. Can you imagine - we would never go anywhere, do anything."

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.


By ZAZ HOLLANDER
zhollander@adn.com