Miracle on Ice: Heroes in Warsaw

Published: Feb. 2, 2023 at 6:30 PM EST
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WARSAW, Ind. (WNDU) - When a busload of high school hockey players from Chicago were involved in a terrible crash in Warsaw, there were a number of heroes who stepped in to help. Not only did Warsaw first responders save lives that night, there were ordinary people who did extraordinary things to comfort those boys and their parents.

It’s a hockey comeback story for the ages. Playoffs start this weekend for the back-to-back league champion JV team from Saint Ignatius. No matter how they do, they’re just fortunate to be back on the ice. We were in Chicago when they competed for the first time since the crash in Warsaw. They invited the Warsaw first responders, medical personnel, and Good Samaritans to watch.

“Most of us we didn’t get a chance to say thank you to them. So being able to see them here, probably getting, being able to say thank you to them is going to be really great,” said Lucas Joa, Saint Ignatius JV Captain.

Joa wears number 14. He took part in the ceremonial puck drop, along with Warsaw Lutheran EMS Director Alicia Mediano.

“We’re glad to see them all doing so well. We’re just excited to talk to them and hear how they’re doing and how they’re recovering,” said Mediano.

It’s been quite the journey. The last time the team was in a game, was non-league play on the road at Culver Academies.

It was November 12, 2022.

With plans to play again the next morning, they left their gear in Culver and headed off to their hotel in Warsaw, the closest town where the team could find rooms.

They never made it.

The emergency radio chatter erupted with the serious calls.

“Send everything. We have multiple patients. School bus is full of people. I’m going to have probably a dozen, dozen, and a half of walking wounded.”

Witnesses say they called to report an out-of-control semi several minutes before it ran the red light at Center Street and State Route 30 and plowed into the team bus, crashing it on its side.

“And then I called 911 back and I was like, ‘That’s it, send everybody, he flipped this bus over now,’” said witness Julie Czukor.

Chuck Toscano helped open the emergency hatches.

“It really just came down to an instinct of, I need to help these kids, they’re not going to know how to get out,” said Toscano.

A Good Samaritan who only wants to be identified as Brandon helped open the back door.

“They couldn’t get the door open. So I ripped the back door off the bus,” said Brandon.

“Seeing the bus on its side, my hopes and thoughts was that it was empty,” said Lt. Ryan Petty of the Warsaw Police Department.

Lt. Petty was one of the first responders there.

“When I made my way around the bus and seen all the kids, that’s when the reality set in that this was a real bad situation,” said Lt. Petty.

“When it’s involving children, that just takes it to another level,” said Captain Brad Kellar, Warsaw Police Department.

Capt. Kellar says it was a difficult scene.

“We really, in all honesty, believed that we were probably going to be dealing with multiple fatalities,” said Kellar.

Of the 26 people on the bus that night, 16 were injured. Three players were critically hurt, including one who was ejected. From broken bones to internal injuries and concussions, there was a lot to do.

In the chaos, the first responders went to work. Their training took over.

What stood out from that night?

“Their professionalism. Their poise. Their leadership. Their heroism. Just doing what they do,” said Mike Rigitano, Saint Ignatius JV Hockey head coach.

“It’s something we do from heart. It’s something we do because we feel the love of our community. And although they aren’t part of our community, they were that day,” said Mediano. “So that was something that was really important for us.”

“It’s tough when they’re underage and we’re trying to track down parents,” said Warsaw Fire Chief Garrett Holderman.

“We were in Culver. The boys were in Warsaw,” said Wendy Cook, parent of one of the injured boys.

Cook and several other parents were at a restaurant in Culver when they got the news and immediately took off, not knowing what they would find, relying on any shred of information sent over social media, or text.

“I was in a car with three other moms and it was a Good Samaritan’s phone that was the first contact we made with one of those boys,” said Cook.

That Good Samaritan was Marcus Smith from Columbus, Indiana. He was at a birthday celebration that night in Warsaw.

“We came across the bus accident and we couldn’t get past. So, we parked in a parking lot. I sat there for a minute and thought they need some help,” said Smith.

And he did. He passed out blankets to the boys.

“This one boy asked me if he was going to be ok. And asked me to stick with him. I stayed with him for quite a while. He asked me three times, ‘Am I going to be ok?’ And I said, ‘I think you’re going to be fine.’ I finally said to him, ‘Have you called your parents?’ And he said, ‘No, I haven’t,’ so, he couldn’t get to his cell phone so I pulled mine out and dialed his dad and got him in touch with his dad.”

Marcus sent this thumbs-up picture to the boy’s dad, which quickly got shared to the hockey moms en route to Warsaw.

“I mean, I was just thinking what would I want to know. I’ve got a 14 and a 15-year-old, so I was thinking man, what would I want to know in that situation,” said Smith.

“For people to stop and care about people they don’t know. You don’t always see today. We talk about those Good Samaritans all the time,” said Cook.

And the immediate attention from first responders and medical staff at Lutheran Kosciusko Hospital.

“Somehow, it all worked out. Just the fact that we were across the street from the hospital. And the first responders were there in one minute. It all happened so fast,” said Cook.

Two of the patients were transported to a hospital in Fort Wayne.

Paramedic Cody Manges drove one of the patients that night, while his girlfriend, Sarah Doyle, was busy in the ER.

You can imagine how nice it was to meet again in Chicago.

“I think the outcome would’ve been a lot different had we been anywhere else. And the whole Warsaw community really came together. Everyone at the hospital, police, everyone was just so great and just trying to help us sort through what was going on,” said Cook.

And the support didn’t stop there. Well-wishes poured into the school long after all the boys were back home from the hospital.

“We had a lot of support from other communities and other hockey teams and schools. So, it was really amazing,” said Joa.

That encouragement on display at their first game back. Cards, letters, and posters lined the walls of the 5th 3rd Arena. We found these handwritten notes from the Warsaw high school basketball teams.

Culver Academies sent their prayers and support too. Here’s a picture of the varsity hockey team after they packed up the gear left behind by Saint Ignatius.

Small gestures that leave a huge impact on a team that continues its comeback.

Playing hockey helps.

“I feel like being back on the ice for a lot of us has just brought us back to what we would normally would do. I just feel like we have a normal life again. Just brings people a lot of peace,” said Joa. “I think this has shown that our team can get through anything, pretty much that comes our way. And even with this, we can still push through it.”

With some extra fans cheering them on from Warsaw. Mediano says they’re more than hockey fans.

“I think we’re part of the family. More than just a fan. I’d like to say we’re forever part of this family,” said Mediano.

We’ll keep you posted on the team’s playoff efforts. Three players are out for the season due to their injuries, but they are expected to make a full recovery and are looking forward to playing again.