DOUGLASS — A Douglass school bus driver and at least one student were taken to the hospital with possible injuries after their bus overturned Thursday afternoon in a creek rushing over a low-water crossing northeast of Douglass.
The nine other Douglass School District students aboard the bus were cold but unhurt, Butler County Sheriff Kelly Herzet said, and were reunited with their parents around 6 p.m. just south of where the accident happened along Hopkins Switch – a gravel road – and 190th Street Southwest.
The injured child, 8-year-old Leah Rotramel, was transported from the crash site to Susan B. Allen Hospital in El Dorado after she complained of back and neck pain. Her mother, Heather Rotramel, said the trip was precautionary “to make sure she doesn’t have any whiplash or a concussion.”
The bus driver was taken to a Wichita hospital to be observed for possible hypothermia and aches. He was in the creek water – which had risen because of recent rains – “for quite some time,” Herzet said.
Wrapped in a blanket and shivering, Rotramel’s 12-year-old son, Corey Gustafson, told of how he and another student pried open an emergency hatch so he and the younger children could escape.
“It took a while to open” the exit, Corey said. He said he helped the others crawl out onto the side of the bus.
That’s where they all waited, he added, until help arrived.
Herzet said authorities from multiple agencies responded to the scene after the bus driver radioed the school about 4 p.m. to say he and the children were involved in an accident. He asked staff members to call 911.
Logan Parker, 12, said he remembers kids screaming and crying immediately after the crash. Authorities say the oldest were about 12.
“We hit a couple of bumps and then we went in the water, and then two kids fell over on me and we tipped the bus,” Logan said.
“The bus driver was shaking a little.”
Herzet said that “all the kids were in the process of getting out” with the help of one another and the bus driver when rescue crews and law enforcement officers arrived. The last child was rescued at about 5:30 p.m., he said, using boats and rescue lines. Agencies assisting at the scene were the Butler County Rescue Squad, Augusta Water Rescue, Douglass Fire Department, Butler County Emergency Medical Services, the Kansas Highway Patrol and the sheriff’s office.
“Everyone stayed calm,” Herzet said. “Kudos to the kids. The kids did a wonderful job of helping each other.”
Herzet said fast-moving water was covering the road when the accident occurred. The cause remained under investigation early Thursday evening, he said, and will be determined by the highway patrol.
The creek, called Muddy Creek, was swollen by sporadic heavy rains that fell throughout Wednesday and into Thursday morning. An average of 3 inches fell in the area during the 24-hour period, said meteorologist Jerilyn Billings of the National Weather Service in Wichita.
“It’s running real fast because of the rains we’ve had,” Herzet said of the water. “Probably driving through that high water rushed that bus off the road, turned it over, and it pretty much stopped right there where it was.”
Douglass School District superintendent Rob Reynolds, who was at the scene, said school staff members launched an emergency operating plan immediately after dialing 911.
“Our staff is trained for scenarios such as this,” he said, “and we are very pleased with that training.
“Our children are safe. Our driver is being checked out currently. And we are very grateful for that. A lot of these types of things don’t end as well as that.”
Heather Rotramel choked back tears when asked how she felt to be reunited with her children as the ambulance transporting her daughter was about to pull away.
She put her arm around her shivering son and said simply: “I feel great.”
Contributing: Rick Plumlee and Stan Finger of The Eagle