Cottonwood marks anniversary of school bus crashby Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
Residents of Cottonwood are looking ahead today as they put behind them the first anniversary of a fatal school bus crash. Four students died in the accident, and 14 other people were injured. On Thursday, one year after the event, students, parents and town residents looked back on 12 months that changed each one of them forever.
Cottonwood, Minn. — At the site of the bus crash, a couple of miles from the southwest Minnesota community of Cottonwood, a set of four memorial wreaths were hung on poles as part of the remembrance.
Printed on a white ribbon on each wreath was the first name of one of the students killed in the accident. The cellophane enclosing a wreath labeled Hunter, for 9-year-old Hunter Javens, rippled in the wind as traffic passed by on Highway 23.
One year after a van blew through a stop sign at this intersection and hit a Lakeview school bus, the students in the district took a break from their normal classroom schedule to remember and look ahead.
Eighth grader Chelsey Johnson says one thing her class did on the anniversary was inscribe inspirational slogans on decorative tiles.
"On my tile I wrote, 'hope,'" said Johnson. "That's what today's about, it's about hope."
The activity was meant to encourage each student to try to face loss with a sense of optimism.
Two of Johnson's classmates died in the crash -- Jesse Javens, 13, and Reed Stevens, 12. She says her class grew closer together after the loss of their classmates.
"This summer we had one of our classmates move away," said Johnson. "And we had everybody from our grade come and we just had a big party at the beach. Because we wanted to be together and we knew that we would miss this person."
The anniversary was a day of new beginnings for the parents of the students killed in the crash. They've started a foundation called Not 4gotten, which will offer support to other parents in the state who've lost children.
Traci Olson's daughter, 9-year old Emilee, was killed in the crash. She says she hopes the foundation will provide grieving parents statewide the kind of help she's received from the parents of the other students killed in the crash.
"I'm fortunate that I have the Javens and the Stevens," said Olson. "I'm sorry they have to be here with me in this rotten, rotten spot. But, we're all here for each other. And we just call up each other and we know exactly how each other's feeling. And that is truly how we are surviving."
Outside the school, many residents of the town of 1,100 people reflected on the loss. Many attended a prayer service on Wednesday evening. Others were at a community dinner and meeting yesterday at the school.
Dana Yost of Cottonwood remembers the bus crash vividly. He was editor of the Marshall Independent newspaper at the time. He says a year later, the tragedy is still fresh in his mind.
"I compare it to a tornado or a flood. This is our big disaster. Nobody will forget this day or this anniversary," said Yost. "We lost lives, we lost a big part of our community. I think we'll all carry that with us."
For Yost, the crash took a personal toll. He knew the students killed in the accident. The depression that followed forced him to leave the newspaper. He kept writing, though, turning out a book of poetry which included several poems about the bus crash.
Yost says people tell him the poems have helped them get through the pain of the accident.
"There's been a good amount of support from family members, from people in town saying, 'thank you for sharing this grief, helping us go through the grief,'" said Yost.
One of his poems talks about how certain events can remind people of someone they've lost. It might be something as simple as the sound of footsteps, or a certain melody or even a memorable play in a baseball game.
The reminders are everywhere, and as constant as the wind rippling across miles of open farmland.
Olga Franco, the driver of the minivan involved in the crash, was found guilty of four counts of criminal vehicular homicide and other charges and was sentenced to 12½ years in prison. She has appealed her conviction, claiming her boyfriend was driving at the time of the crash.