WINAMAC, Ind. (WNDU) - When a truck slammed into a school bus at a railroad crossing in Marshall County last year, the Winamac community was left stunned and grieving.
Winamac eighth-grader Owen Abbott died in the crash. Several other classmates were injured. Nearly a year later, lessons are still being learned from the confusion of that day.
Eastern Pulaski Community School Corporation received a $1,000 One School at a Time grant to help them supply new safety response kits. The kits were assembled after watching Plymouth Community School Corporation’s response on Dec. 5 last year.
“I've referred to it, sadly, as absolute the worst day of my professional career,” said former Eastern Pulaski Community School Superintendent Dan Foster, recounting the eighth-grade field trip to Warsaw. The trip was cut short in Marshall County, 45 minutes away from Winamac.
"[The distance] made communication with parents difficult, because they wanted to know what was happening, and we didn't really know yet, and that was a challenge,” Foster said.
Miscommunication added to the chaos.
There were two buses on the field trip to Warsaw that day. The first bus went all the way to Warsaw, with the driver not immediately knowing the severity of the collision in Marshall County. Once in Warsaw, that bus turned around and traveled back to the school in Winamac.
Some parents were initially told to go to a Plymouth church to reunite with their students. Others were told all of the students would be taken to St. Joseph Health System in Plymouth. That’s where the injured students from the second bus were taken.
Eventually, school officials were able to sort out the details.
“We knew which kids were on which bus, because we did it alphabetically,” Winamac Middle School Principal Ryan Dickinson said.
However, the lists were in a Google document. Now, they always keep a paper copy.
“When you're in a crisis situation and you're searching through your phone to try to find the Google doc,” Dickinson said, shaking his head, “that added a little chaos to know which students were on what bus.”
When Winamac parents showed up to the hospital in Plymouth, they were met by staff from Plymouth Community School Corporation, who stepped in with their district’s reunification plans.
“That day would've been a whole lot more chaotic had Plymouth not been able to step in and help us out with their kits and their cards. They had this ready to go,” Foster said.
The Plymouth reunification plans had never been used before, nor did officials ever think they would be used to help another school.
“You put these plans together and you think your kids, your school, this is what we need to do. You don't think about having to step in and help in another situation that doesn't even involve your students,” Foster said.
The program follows directions from an organization called the I Love U Guys Foundation. The procedures cut down the chaos.
“It was just the compassion they showed. They didn't know these kids. They didn't know any of these parents coming in. But it didn't matter to the people of Plymouth,” Foster said.
Each reunification tote includes a number of items, including megaphones, safety vests, lanyards, information cards and parking signs.
The Martin’s Super Markets One School at a Time grant covers the cost of the supplies.
The suggestions from the I Love U Guys Foundation are free, but the materials are not.
“That's why we're so grateful to Martin's to help us out in putting these together, because we do have to purchase this,” Foster said.
Foster left Winamac four months ago to return to his hometown. He now serves as superintendent of Southeast Fountain Community School Corporation in Veedersburg, Indiana. He plans to implement similar safety response plans at his new district.
Meanwhile, Owen Abbott’s family is pleased to see the added safety measures at Eastern Pulaski Community School corporation.
“It’s good that they're going to be prepared. I mean, it shouldn't have taken an accident,” said Owen’s mother, Britni Fritz. “But at least now we know what needs to be done and what can help.”
Foster knows that if a terrible event should occur again, either for the Eastern Pulaski district or for another school passing through, the Winamac school staff will be prepared with their own kits, inspired by Plymouth’s quick thinking and compassion.
“I don't think they can understand truly how much they did for us,” Foster said.
Dec. 5 is the one-year anniversary of the crash. The family is inviting the public to attend a candlelight vigil in memory of Owen Abbott.
It will take place on Dec. 5 at 6:30 p.m. at Star City Park, where Owen spent many days playing baseball.
16 News Now anchor Tricia Sloma will have an update on how the family and community are doing one year later. Tune in for the story on Dec. 5 at 6 p.m.
For more information on the I Love U Guys Foundation, click here.
To enter your school for a $1,000 One School at a Time grant from Martin’s Super Markets, click here.