The bright yellow school bus lay on its side at Kerry Park Thursday evening.
But this was no ordinary bus. It had no engine, no gas, and no mirrors.
And, it wasn’t on its side because of an accident. Instead, it was on its side to help train local firefighters should they ever need to handle a school bus accident.
Timothy Herstad, United Truck Body Co., a company that sells buses in Duluth, offered his knowledge for the training.
“I pray to God they never need this information, but better to have it than not have it,” he said.
And Herstad knows about buses.
“I know how they’re built, why they’re built and the way they’re built and I show fire departments an easier way to get kids out of them if they ever need to in an accident,” Herstad said prior to the training session.
Before Brad Hagen, an International Falls street department employee, used a front-end loader to tip the bus on its side, he provided a demonstration of the strength of the roof as he used his scoop to try to squash it, and instead slightly dented it.
International Falls firefighters used several different tools to cut into the roof of the bus, to learn what works best and what doesn’t work well.
Falls Fire Chief Adam Mannausau said he appreciated the opportunity to get training not often offered locally, and that provided specific information.
“I was surprised at the strength of the bus itself, and the roof structure... is amazing,” he said.
He credited Herstad’s knowledge and care for kids and firefighters. “He does it out of the goodness of his heart, he feels so passionate,” Mannausau said.
He noted that Herstad is the nearest expert on school buses, and he credited the Falls School District for using the bus for good.
“Everything came together nicely,” he said.
After firefighters practiced removing one of their crew from the bus on a backboard, they inspected the fuel vents on the bottom of the bus, and pulled off the windshield.
Herstad told firefighters that buses are built to a different standard than passenger vehicles: Buses are built as a roll cage, with each riveted seam keeping in place metal ribs that go through the roof.
“Mile for mile this is the safest vehicle on the road,” Herstad said. “They are built compartmentalized; you keep the kids in there, keep the occupants in there, they do not crush, they do not crumple like a car. They are built to support one and a half times their own weight on the roof without buckling.”
That means a bus can handle 25,000 pounds on its roof without buckling or collapsing, but 4,000 pounds on a 4,000 pound vehicle, will cause the roof to collapse, he said.
Herstad’s training helps identify the weak spots, or places that firefighters can more easily access.
“It doesn’t cut apart like any other vehicle,” Herstad said.
Responding to an accident involving “someone’s most precious cargo” can add to the concerns, he said. Among those concerns are: Knowing who to contact to get the names of the children who are supposed to be on the bus; determining whether to bring another agency in the assist when local firefighters know children on the bus; and identifying beforehand who will handle crowd control when parents hear about a bus accident.
“Someone will know a victim, and someone needs to know who is on the bus,” Herstad said.
The company offers the firefighter training as a service and at no cost to the city or school district.
“I have worked on buses my entire life,” he said. “I’ve shortened buses, rebuilt buses, been involved in reports given on other accidents so I got to see what works, what didn’t work.”
The training is most often conducted at the company’s location in Hermantown, but its bus trailer has allowed further outreach. Herstad was coming to pick up the bus that has been replaced with a more efficient bus, thanks to a federal grant, to take it to the scrap yard.
A part of that grant required the engine to be removed and destroyed, said Tom Holt, Falls district transportation and facilities director.
“We used everything out of this bus, and this is it’s last hurrah,” he said of the 1994 model, as the district’s chief mechanic, Gene Steele, stood near.
“We thought it was a waste to just go to the scrap yard, so I thought let’s use it for something,” Holt said, adding he called Mannausau and Herstad to get their thoughts about using it for training.
“It was either that or go to the dump, so we thought we should use it for training,” Holt said.
Meanwhile, Herstad said the majority of kids reported killed in Minnesota in bus accidents, are not in true buses but instead vans and other type III vehicles used to transport children.
“Once they’re on the bus, they’re far safer than anywhere else,” Herstad said.
The lack of seat belts in a bus has been the focus of discussions at state and federal levels.
Herstad, who noted his own children ride in buses, said seat belts can cause injury in a school bus accident because they may cause children to hang, should the bus tip on its side.
He called the issue compartment syndrome, which is when someone develops blood clots from wearing a fall harness or seat belt creating pressure. When the person is cut out of the seat belt, it can cause blood clots to travel through the body.
“If you have 77 kids in here, and roll it on the side, half the kids are up there hanging,” Herstad described. “Do you cut the kids out first that are hanging or the ones on the ground first? If the bus driver is incapacitated, who does it?”
Ninety percent of the kids walk out the door, or help other kids out, and some are injured, but they’re not hanging there, he said.
“How do you get them out if they’re wearing a seat belt and if there’s a fire?” he wondered.
Using seat belts in cars and trucks save lives, he assured, but said the bus is designed to keep kids safe, adding that the backs of seats give with a certain amount of pressure.
Secondary accidents, after an initial bus collision, kill more children, he added.
Herstad’s gained a lot of knowledge about buses in variety of ways.
“I’ve rolled them over, I’ve driven them through motor homes, and yes, actually on purpose,” he said laughing as he described the “Midsummer Night of Mayhem,” which started as a fundraiser for the Proctor race track, and has expanded.
School buses and their drivers compete with other service providers including Minnesota State Patrol troopers, driving retired and modified squads.
“The worst part is when we’re racing (the buses), we take 25 percent of the safety features out: all the side windows are taken out, which are designed to reinforce the bus,” he said, laughing. “But we rolled over on the track, pushed it back up and started racing again.”