Investigation continues into crash that killed Minnesota boy waiting for school bus
THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minn. -- Thief River Falls School officials spent Thursday working to comfort students and staff as state troopers investigated a Thursday morning crash that took the life of a 7-year-old boy who was getting ready to board a sc...
THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minn. -- Thief River Falls School officials spent Thursday working to comfort students and staff as state troopers investigated a Thursday morning crash that took the life of a 7-year-old boy who was getting ready to board a school bus.
“Grief has very unique ways of manifesting itself, and we want to make sure we are communicating with people and letting them know we are here to help,” Superintendent Brad Bergstrom said at a news conference.
Anthony Fellman, a second-grader who attended Challenger Elementary School in Thief River Falls, died Thursday after a 2005 Chrysler Town & Country minivan driven by Joanne Schultz, 69, of Plummer, Minn., struck him at about 7 a.m. near his home on U.S. Highway 59, authorities said. He was taken to Sanford Hospital in Thief River Falls but died of his injuries.
“This is a very hard, very tragic day,” State Patrol Sgt. Jesse Grabow said. “As a trooper and a father ... I can’t imagine what this family is going through right now.”
More than a dozen children, most on the school bus, witnessed the crash. The school has discussed with staff members how to meet the needs of its students, Bergstrom said. Counseling also is available for staff members, bus drivers, students and anyone who may be impacted by the crash.
Troopers are trying to piece together exactly what happened. So far, investigators have determined Anthony and two other children were waiting early Thursday morning near his home for a school bus to take them to Challenger. The bus, which was southbound, was in the process of stopping at an approach to the Fellman residence, which is about 10 miles southwest of Thief River Falls on Highway 59.
The Patrol said Fellman was crossing Highway 59 when he was hit by the northbound minivan. A Patrol spokesman said the bus had not come to a complete stop, and so the stop arm was not extended. Whether or not warning lights were activated is under investigation.
Schultz was not injured in the crash. She is cooperating with authorities in the investigation, Grabow said.
It’s unclear why Anthony was on the highway or what caused the tragic crash, Grabow said. Alcohol and drugs were not involved in the crash, but he could not confirm if distracted driving played a role in the tragedy.
The speed limit on Highway 59 is 60 mph, but it is uncertain how fast Schultz was driving.
Minnesota law states unless divided by a median, vehicles on two-lane roads coming from both directions must stop if a bus’ stop lights are flashing and the stop arm is extended.
Charges are not pending in the case and the incident is being investigated as a crash, Grabow said. It’s uncertain if criminal charges will be filed, but Grabow said it will take time -- possibly months -- to determine if a violation occurred and if the crash warrants prosecution.
Until the investigation is complete, Bergstrom agreed it is best not to draw conclusions on how the events unfolded or who, if anyone, is at fault.
“Anytime we investigate a crash, especially something this serious in nature, involving a fatality, it takes time to gather all of that information, to provide the reconstruction, to gather … the witness statements to accurately reflect what happened,” Grabow said.
The atmosphere at Challenger, as well as in other schools across the Thief River Falls district, was one of shock and sadness, Bergstrom said. Teachers who knew Anthony described him as a child who loved school, adding he had a personality that was “larger than life.” “It was an infectious personality and just really was a great young man to be around,” he said. “Again, a very, very sad day to have lost a young man who was so full of life and somebody who was an integral part of the Challenger community.”
The school has reached out to Anthony’s family, telling them they have the school’s support. While Challenger did not cancel classes Thursday, the district alerted the parents of the children on the bus, asking if they wanted their children to come home. Anthony’s siblings, along with the bus driver and 12 students on the bus, witnessed the crash. Some of those children were taken home, school counselor Bill Stock said.
Counselors from the district also have met with the children involved in the crash as well as teachers and staff.
“We will continue to work very hard as a district to meet the needs of everybody involved in this,” Bergstrom said.
Thursday was a sad and hard day, but Bergstrom said he expected Friday to be more difficult. Most of the school district’s staff members are aware of Anthony’s death, but many of his classmates and others students likely had no idea what had happened Thursday, Stock said.
“A lot of our elementary kids are going to find out tonight (Thursday night) what has happened,” Bergstrom said.
There are resources at the school district’s website at www.trf.k12.mn.us on how to deal with grief in young children, especially after the loss of a fellow student, Stock said.
The school has protocol in place to handle fatal accidents involving children, as it is not the first time a child has been killed in a collision with a vehicle. On July 18, 14-year-old Gannon Allen Hajlik was struck by a truck while riding his bicycle through an intersection in Thief River Falls. Though he was taken to a hospital, he died of injuries two days later. The school has generated a list of students who may need more attention than others, including students on the bus, as well as family members and friends of Anthony. But in the end, every student is important, and the school wants to make sure everyone receives the attention and help they need, Stock said.
“In the midst of a lot of emotion and a lot of tragedy, it’s important to have those protocols in place so you can just step into that and start following those processes to make sure everyone is covered,” he said.
Funeral arrangements are pending, and the school is trying to determine how to honor Anthony’s memory. His family has asked if his locker can be turned into a memorial so students can grieve for the tragedy and honor his memory, Bergstrom said. The school is conducting research to make sure the proposed memorial fits the district’s policies, he added.
The superintendent said he wants children to be aware of their surroundings on their way to school, adding crashes happen quickly. He also said the school will do everything it can to protect students while they travel to school.
“Our most precious cargo that we have in our schools on a daily basis is our children,” he said. “Whether they are walking to school or riding a bus, we want to make sure they get there as safely as possible.”
Minnesota Public Radio contributed to this report.