At least one person was severely injured and several others have been hospitalized after a bus with 49 people aboard collided with a semi-truck towing a trailer.
The accident happened sometime before 11:45 a.m. Friday near mile 55 of the Richardson Highway, said Alaska State Troopers spokesperson Beth Ipsen.
Providence Valdez Medical Center confirmed that Kenai Central High School skier Lindsay Floyd has been flown out for further treatment but were unable to say where she had been flown or comment on the seriousness of her injuries.
The group was headed to a cross-country ski meet in Valdez and included 28 students and three adults from Kenai Central High School and 15 students and three adults from Soldotna-based Skyview High School.
The bus, under contract from Unique Bus Charters, was following a Department of Transportation semi-truck towing a trailer.
“The semi-truck went to make a left-hand turn into a pullout on the other side of the road and due to blowing snow the school bus driver did not see the truck slowing down, did not see the turn,” Ipsen said.
The driver of the school bus, identified by Unique Bus Charters as Verne Brown, was pinned into position by the collision and had to be extricated and taken to a hospital in Valdez, Ipsen said.
“We were trying to get a helicopter into that area because his injuries were severe enough to need it,” Ipsen said. “Unfortunately, because of the weather, we ended up transporting him by ambulance.”
Mike Baxter, spokesperson from the Kenai bus charter company, said the company had not had an injury accident in 15 years.
The driver was flown to an Anchorage hospital, Baxter said.
In addition to the bus driver, the driver of the semi-truck and one student were taken to the hospital from the scene of the accident, Ipsen said. The semi-driver was complaining of back pain and the student had been thrown against a seat.
The rest of the students and parents were taken to Valdez and met by a triage team at the elementary school, said Pegge Erkeneff, spokesperson for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.
Initially, there was some confusion about where the students were being taken as Valdez-area middle school students are also currently housed in that building, she said.
The school district posted details of the incident on its Facebook, at about 2:30 p.m., Kenai Central High School’s Facebook page was updated with details about an hour earlier.
Initial reports by troopers and by the school district showed differing numbers of students and teachers, however by Friday evening, Erkeneff said every student and parent had been counted.
Specific details were hard to come by as events unfolded as the collision occurred in an area that is out of cell phone range.
“It took 45 minutes for the troopers to be able to respond,” she said.
While initial reports were that the students and parents were uninjured, as the day progressed that changed, Erkeneff said.
“There was potentially some whiplash and cuts and scrapes,” she said. “Students started to realize that maybe they were aching and hurting. “
Jennifer Ticknor, whose son Dezmond Ticknor was on the bus, said she got an automated call from the school district that an accident had happened, but had a hard time getting a hold of him.
“He didn’t answer when I called but he answered when his sister called,” she said.
He was one of the students taken to the hospital after being checked out by the medical team in Valdez.
Ticknor said he was having neck and shoulder pain and needed an X-Ray.
The school district has yet to get a final report on how many students ended up in the hospital, Erkeneff said.
Mitch Michaud, chair of the Kenai Nordic Ski Club booster said his son Fox Michaud and daughter Madeleine Michaud were also onboard — neither were seriously injured.
“When you’re in a bus, you don’t see anything,” Michaud said. “But what Madeleine has told us is that (it felt like) they slowed down really fast.”
His daughter photographed the “mangled” front of the bus but has been unable to send the picture, he said.
Typically ski team members make the 450-mile trip to Valdez once every four years, though the race occurs annually.
“That way if you’re on the ski team for all four years, you can participate,” Michaud said. “It’s a pretty big trip and it’s very exciting. This year it was just a bit more exciting than they had planned.”
The group left Thursday after school, spent the night in Palmer, then headed to Valdez Friday.
Michaud, who calls himself the resident “ski dad” said he had been on several trips with the driver of the charter bus, Brown.
“He’s a good driver,” Michaud said. “I’m sure it was a true accident.”
Both Ticknor and Michaud said they spoke to several other parents whose children had either no injuries or minor injuries.
"It could have been a lot worse," Michaud said. "My wife and I were just talking and this is Alaska and driving in the wintertime we tell our kids constantly, 'When you go on the roads you don't know what will happen.'"