A small town grieves over a huge lossby Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
There are more questions than answers in Cottonwood, Minn., as residents deal with the aftermath of one of the worst days in the town's history. Four students in the local schools died Tuesday in a bus accident just south of the community.
Investigators are confident they will eventually piece together the physical events which sent a van crashing into the side of the school bus. The answers to the spiritual and philosophical questions posed by the accident may be more difficult to find.
Cottonwood, Minn. — A brisk wind and bitter cold temperatures seemed to add to the misery as town residents regrouped on the day after the accident.
Traffic moved on the town's streets as many people tried to go about their jobs. At the school, though, it was anything but business as usual.
A sign on the Lakeview campus usually flashes basic school announcements like sports events and concerts. Wednesday it simply said, "No School," even though the building was open and grief counselors were available inside.
Reporters were not allowed in the building, but some students talked about what it was like. In the small town of 1,100, many people feel close to the victims and their families.
High school junior Jeremy Labat and some friends were there, both to receive and offer support. Labat says one word described the scene -- shock.
"We were just kind of praying together and coming together," said Labat. "If anybody needed some comforting, we were there to comfort them."
The four students killed in the accident ranged in age from 9 to 13 years old. Labat said when he first heard there was a bus accident he figured it was something small, like maybe the bus backed into another vehicle.
When news came that four students had died, it transformed the bus crash into a moment of enduring pain.
"I knew most of them pretty good, but it's just a shock, really," said Labat.
The sudden loss drew more residents of Cottonwood together Wednesday night. A couple hundred people turned out at the Catholic church for a mass in memory of the four dead.
People prayed, some shed tears over a tragedy that seems to defy understanding. During his sermon, Rev. Paul Hadusek asked the question for which there is still no answer.
"Why, Lord? Why this?" Hadusek asked. "I don't know if anyone of us, me included, would accept any answer from the Lord as a right answer. I don't know."
The accident was the worst school bus in Minnesota in more than two decades.
The State Patrol declined to confirm a report that the driver of the van that hit the bus lacked a valid driver's license. The Marshall Independent newspaper, citing court records, reported that the van driver had pleaded guilty in 2006 to driving without a valid license.
No matter what the investigators eventually say caused the accident, it's unlikely to ever heal all the grief. Rev. Hadusek said for some, there may never be an acceptable explanation of why the bus accident happened.
"One of the main things I think that they can do to get through this is just to accept the fact that events happen, and we don't know why they do," said Hadusek. "There's always the unexpected that catches us off guard. And maybe that tells us that we have a very precious gift in life."
The Catholic priest said people should carry on and do the best they can do with life.
Those may be the sorts of words many Cottonwood residents say to themselves as they move through the difficult days ahead. Some will find answers, others only more questions.
- Morning Edition, 02/21/2008, 7:20 a.m.