PULASKI COUNTY, Ind. (WNDU) - Crashes involving school buses have resulted in unforgettable tragedies in our area.
On Oct. 30, 2018 a bus stop crash in Fulton County killed three students and injured one.
Just five weeks later, on Dec. 5, a truck slammed into a school bus that had stopped at a railroad crossing in Marshall County, killing 13-year-old Owen Abbott.
By law, school buses are required to stop at rail crossings, even on busy highways. The Eastern Pulaski school bus was full of Winamac Middle School students on a field trip to Warsaw. They were just pulling away from the crossing near Argos on U.S. 31 when a truck slammed into the rear of the bus, sending an overhead rack into the bus and causing Owen's fatal injuries.
In February, a grand jury recommended no charges be filed against the driver of the truck. Owen’s mother, Britni Fritz, has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the driver and his employer and does not speak publicly about the specifics of the case.
Indiana Sen. Blake Doriot filed a bill in the Indiana Legislature that would have added safety lanes to highway rail crossings. Fritz testified in support of Senate Bill 42 at a Senate hearing in February.
“I think this would really help to save other lives,” Fritz testified. “No one should have to go through the pain that I am going through…. Maybe if we thought of this sooner, he would still be here.”
While the bill passed the Indiana Senate, it was stopped in the Indiana House.
Doriot and Owen’s family say they’ll continue fighting for safety improvements at rail crossings. And NewsCenter 16 will continue to follow progress on any future legislation.
In the meantime, on Thursday, May 2, we pause to remember the bright, funny, athletic Owen on what would have been his 14th birthday.
NewsCenter 16’s Tricia Sloma visited his family home for an exclusive interview with his mother.
Surrounded by farm fields, there’s a patch of woods near Winamac where a mom can go to collect her thoughts.
“You know, when you're a mom, you don't get much time to yourself. This is about the only place I can escape to where they can't find me sometimes,” Fritz explained as she walked along a path, moving branches along the way.
Outdoors is where Fritz finds peace and feels close to her oldest son, Owen.
“He was great,” she said. “He loved the outdoors.”
Owen had his hunting safety certification and participated in youth hunts with his stepdad, Nick Fritz.
“All three boys got a deer,” Britni Fritz said. “[I] don't remember if he got a buck this year or was it last year.”
He loved hunting about as much as he loved sports.
“He did a lot of baseball. He played football,” Fritz said.
Owen was an all-star player every year in his league and was good at football too.
But he still took the time to play with his brothers: Britni’s 8-year-old son, Parker, and Nick’s 7-year-old son, Cason.
The busy household became awfully quiet in December.
“Definitely the worst day of my life,” Britni Fritz said.
She was at work on Dec. 5 when she got a call from the middle school principal. She just thought Owen was in trouble.
“I was just like, ‘What did he do now?’ Then, when I knew what happened, everybody just told me I was as white as a ghost, and I ran out the door,” she recalled.
Although the next several days were a blur, a few things stood out.
“It was very moving when the whole eighth-grade class came in and they all just stood around me and we just cried,” Britni Fritz said. “Then, all the EMTs and first responders came, and it was amazing.”
Britni Fritz is thankful for her community and wants to keep Owen’s memory alive. There is a memorial ride coming up at the end of the month that benefits Winamac Middle School athletics and safety programs.
“I think it’s a great cause, and I want to carry on my son's name. He can't do it, so I feel like I need to do it for him,” she said.
And she’ll continue to push for change.
“I think it's a great idea to put the extra lanes, because it could help save a life,” Britni Fritz said.
She wants all drivers to be more mindful of school buses.
“This is an accident that shouldn't have happened, and I just want people to pay attention,” she said.
Pay attention to avoid this mother’s pain.
“I'm never going to see him walk down that aisle," she said. "I'm never going to see him get married. I'm never going to have grandkids from him.”
Owen was one incredible child who is remembered with love.
“His smile. His dimples. His laugh. I miss everything about him,” Britni Fritz said.
If you want to help support the Memorial Ride for Owen Abbott, it will be held May 25. Registration starts at 9:30 a.m., and the ride starts at 11 a.m. The event starts and ends at Winamac Middle School. Motorcycles will start the event, but cars and trucks are welcome too.
Vehicles will follow the route that the school bus was taking on the day of the field trip, with a stop planned at Wagon Wheel Theater in Warsaw. The benefit will support athletic and safety programs at the school.
For more details, click on this Facebook event link.