By Nicole Minier
CHURUBUSCO — Sometimes Christmas giving comes in the most unlikely ways.
When the 40 passengers of a Barons charter bus were stuck in Churubusco for five hours after a fatal crash with an SUV Thursday, they probably weren’t expecting the community to embrace them with open arms.
It’s not something anyone planned for, but everyone was ready to roll up their sleeves and lend a helping hand.
From Smith-Green Community Schools administrators to local businesses, and the volunteer firefighters who spent five hours on the scene, many worked to make the unexpected visitors to Churubusco feel more at-ease.
The crash happened at about 11 a.m. Thursday near the intersection of Blue Lake Road and U.S. 33. According to a crash report by the Whitley County Sheriff’s Department, the driver of the SUV, Edward Dahm, 86, of Fort Wayne, drove left of center “for an unknown reason,” crashing into the bus head-on. Dahm was pronounced dead at the scene.
Smith Township Fire Chief Kris Bair was minutes behind the crash, and was able to quickly go to work at the scene.
“I came up on the crash before the fire department was even dispatched,” Bair said. “Realizing it was a charter bus, my first thought was that I hoped the bus was empty.”
But as Bair got closer to the scene, he saw people starting to evacuate through the side windows of the bus.
The driver of the bus was pinned inside with at least one, possibly two broken legs, and another woman was lying in the entryway of the bus with a broken arm.
Due to the crash, the door couldn’t be opened, and people were evacuating by any means — including climbing out the windshield of the bus.
“The looks on their faces — they were in disbelief of what happened — I was, too,” Bair said. “But in those situations, you have to react.”
Within 10 minutes of the fire trucks arriving, Bair said, his crews managed to get the bus driver, Beri Shaw, 57, of Galloway, Ohio, extricated from the bus. He was airlifted to Parkview Regional Medical Center in Fort Wayne.
Several ambulances were on the way from Columbia City, Noble County and Huntertown, but Bair knew those ambulances couldn’t transport all of the crash victims in a timely fashion.
Bair sent one of the Huntertown ambulances to the fire station to set up a triage base. That ambulance happened to have an important asset — Huntertown’s fire chief, Mike Feely.
“He handled everything at our station from there,” Bair said. “He got everything ready, set up tables that could be used to lay out patients for exams. Then we were able to get everyone out of the cold and see who needed to be transported.”
In all, 17 of the 41 people involved in the crash needed to be taken to the hospital.
“That was the biggest mass casualty incident in our department history,” Bair said.
How do you transport 41 people 1.9 miles to the other side of town?
Whitley County Sheriff’s Deputy Tony Helfrich made contact with Smith-Green School Resource Officer Chad Fulkerson, and three school buses arrived in short order — with unlikely drivers.
On the last day of school before Christmas break, Superintendent Galen Mast, Business Manager Todd Fleetwood and Fulkerson jumped in the schools’ activity buses and rushed to the scene to pick up the bus passengers and deliver them to the fire station.
“The people at the fire station were fantastic,” Mast said. “They had everything set up for them.”
Then, Mast contacted the school cafeteria to make 50 additional lunches for the day, which he delivered to the crash victims. McDonald’s donated several hamburgers, and Egolf’s IGA contributed water bottles.
“It’s best to take a tragedy and minimize some of the pain when you’re able to,” Mast said.
It wasn’t until 4 p.m. that Barons delivered a new bus to pick up the remaining passengers and take them to their original destination, Columbus, Ohio. They were coming from Chicago.
U.S. 33 was closed until about 3:30 p.m.