The parents of Megan Klindt told the Des Moines Register that a lack of school district oversight contributed to a fire that claimed the life of their 16-year-old daughter and of her 74-year-old school bus driver in December.
Glen and Natalie Klindt said school bus driver Donnie Hendricks had picked Megan up for school at about 7 a.m. on Dec. 12 and backed out of the driveway onto a gravel road in front of the family’s farm house in rural Oakland, Iowa. At that point, the rear wheels of the Type C conventional bus became stuck in an adjacent ditch. Hendricks then attempted to free the bus for about 10 minutes, when Natalie Klindt said the vehicle sparked a brush fire.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators said in January that the fire started in the engine compartment. Regardless, during a 911 dispatch call to first responders summoning them to the scene, a deputy from the Pottawattamie County Sheriff’s Office reports that the school bus is fully engulfed in flame and he can’t gain access to Klindt and Hendricks on board.
Natalie Klindt, who witnessed the incident with older daughter Michelle, said Hendricks was seemingly trapped behind the wheel as the fire spread through the school bus. He hung out the driver’s window gasping for fresh air and yelling for help, she added. Michelle Klindt attempted to break a bus window with a hammer, but was only able to open a small hole. Both she and her mother eventually had to back away from the bus as the fire grew too hot.
The Klindts told the Register that Hendricks used a walker and was scheduled to have back surgery later that week. They questioned his ability to safely drive the bus, as well as evacuate himself and others in an emergency, as they contended that he was unable to unfasten his seat belt without assistance.
They also said their daughter and other students were not properly trained on how to exit the bus in an emergency and said the exit vandal lock on the rear emergency door was broken. The Riverside Community School District declined to answer the Klindt’s allegations when asked by the Register. State school bus investigators uncovered the deficiency late last year and put the bus out of service, but the district told STN in February that it fixed the issue the same day.
On-scene investigators confirmed following the fire that the exit vandal lock had been removed, which an Iowa Department of Education spokesperson told STN is a permissible solution to any nonfunctioning equipment on the bus, but that is not required by state specifications.
Editor’s note: The original reporting incorrectly stated that the rear engines became stuck in a ditch, which does not make sense grrammatically and because the bus in question is a Type C. The article intended to describe the rear wheels going off the road and becoming stuck. This version has been updated to reflect that change. STN regrets the confusion.