OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Tougher standards for school bus drivers and a fire suppression system could have prevented the deaths in a 2017 school bus fire in western Iowa, federal safety investigators said Tuesday.
National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt said the Riverside Community School District didn’t ensure the driver was medically fit before the crash, which killed two.
“We’ve got to send the message that by God if you’re a school district you have a responsibility to make sure that you’re providing the oversight that those kids deserve,” Sumwalt said.
The 74-year-old bus driver Donald Hendricks, who died in the fire along with his 16-year-old passenger Megan Klindt, had mobility issues that limited his ability to evacuate the bus. Hendricks used a walker and had back surgery scheduled the week of the fire.
Klindt’s family has a wrongful death lawsuit pending against the school district that is tentatively scheduled for trial early next year.
District Superintendent Tim Mitchell said the district cooperated with the NTSB investigation and is working to ensure that its bus transportation is safe.
The bus became stuck after Hendricks backed out of Klindt’s rural driveway and the bus’s right rear wheels dropped into a 3-foot-deep ditch.
Investigators said the fire likely started in the bus’s turbocharger, which overheated after the bus’s rear tires became stuck in a drainage ditch with the exhaust blocked and Hendricks revved the engine in an effort to free the vehicle.
Investigators say Klindt may have been trying to help the bus driver evacuate when she was overcome by smoke and fumes. She also may have had difficulty opening the front door of the bus.
Sumwalt said having a fire suppression system would have provided more time to evacuate. The federal requirements for school bus fire safety haven’t been updated since 1971.
Many of the fire safety recommendations the NTSB approved Tuesday echo ones made after previous bus crashes, including one five years ago in near Orland, California, that killed five students, three adult chaperones and the drivers. The busload of students on their way to visit Humboldt State University collided with a FedEx tractor-trailer.
The NTSB recommends installing fire suppression systems on all new buses and adding them on older buses.