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Bus rollover kills Pelican Rapids student

PELICAN RAPIDS, Minn. - They never imagined it could happen here, residents of this small lake-country town said Saturday after learning that one of their students died and others were injured in an early morning bus accident on Interstate 94 in Albertville.

The bus was one of two carrying students and chaperones home from a high school band trip to Chicago.

They had been there for the past four days, performing, visiting museums and attending a comedy show, said Superintendent Deb Wanek.

The Minnesota Highway Department identified the victim as Jessica Weishair, 16, of Barnesville. State Patrol Lt. Mark Peterson said weather and road conditions at the time were dry.

The crash happened east of the Albertville Mall near the intersection of I-94 and Wright County Road 37, the State Patrol said.

Peterson said some of the students had arms and legs pinned under the bus when firefighters arrived. Rescuers spent hours freeing them.

"(The students) said it was dark and that they were all asleep," said Gloria O'Connell, spokeswoman for Allina Hospitals & Clinics. "They woke up when the bus crashed, and the paramedics showed up really fast."

"In a town this size, everybody's your own child," said Nancy Huseby, who was attending her daughter's basketball tournament at the school Saturday. "We raise them together. This is hard."

Students at the high school cried and clung to each other as news of the accident spread. Classmates said Weishair was a sophomore at the high school.

"We're just really shocked and sad we didn't get to say goodbye to her," said Chantel Stout, a sophomore at Pelican

Rapids High. "Everyone's friends with each other here."

The charter bus, owned by Richards Transportation of Moorhead, was heading westbound around 5:48 a.m. when it tipped on its side, according to the Minnesota Highway Patrol. Forty-seven people were on board, said Tom Asplin, a State Patrol dispatcher.

Students and chaperones were taken to hospitals in Coon Rapids, Buffalo, Monticello and Robbinsdale. At least one remained in critical condition around 4 p.m., according to hospital spokespeople.

Nobody was injured in the second bus. They were taken to a Catholic church in Albertville and arrived back in Pelican Rapids shortly after 1 p.m.

Students exited the bus in single file and entered the school's main entrance, which was roped off with yellow police tape. School staff stood along the sidewalk, shielding students from three cameras. They then helped unload luggage, band instruments and pillows from the bus.

Families met students inside the school's band room and fine arts auditorium, where counselors and clergy were on hand, Wanek said.

Students in the accident who could be transported returned to Pelican Rapids by 5 p.m. on a charter bus from St. Cloud, according to a message posted on the high school's Web site. Some members of the trip remained hospitalized in the metro area.

"There were a lot of sad kids," said Mary Ann Birkeland of New Rockford, N.D.

Birkeland's grandson, a percussionist, was on the bus that tipped, she said. She arrived Saturday morning at the school expecting to pick him up because his mother was out of town. She didn't receive a message from the school because her phone wasn't working.

"He's OK," Birkeland said later.

Band students had been looking forward to the Chicago trip for months, said Kayla Fitzgerald, a junior at the school.

"They were ecstatic," she said. "They had been fundraising a long time."

The buses left Chicago around 10 p.m. Friday and were expected to arrive in Pelican Rapids around 10:30 a.m. Saturday.

The bus veered off a curve in the road, according to an incident report on the Highway Patrol's Web site. The accident is still under investigation.

Band students text-messaged and called parents and friends with news of the accident. By 6 a.m., parents notified the school's principal and superintendent.

"You are entrusted with kids to keep them safe ... this is one of those occasions that turned tragic," Wanek said.

The bus driver was identified as Loren Ernst, 69, of Moorhead. He was treated and released.

Calls to Jay Richards, co-owner of Richards Transportation, on Saturday afternoon were referred to the Highway Patrol. The Star Tribune reported that Richards said Ernst joined the firm last year after spending years driving semi trucks and other heavy equipment.

"He is an experienced driver," a shaken Richards told the Star Tribune. The accident death was the first for the 30-year-firm, he said.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, in a prepared statement, said Saturday, "The thoughts and prayers of Minnesota are with the people of Pelican Rapids, especially the family of the student whose life was lost in this accident, and we hope for a speedy recovery for those who were injured."

Kim and Stacy Weishair, Jessica's parents, released a statement through the school, saying "... Even though we are struggling with our grief, we hold in our thoughts those who have been injured and all the students, staff, chaperones and their families who were involved in the band trip. Our community is loving, strong, and faith-filled. These are the very things we all need to give and receive as we find our way together."

Travis Drahn, a senior at the high school, said Weishair was hired a couple of weeks ago at Park Region Co-op Oil in Pelican Rapids. He worked with her for a week.

"She was quiet but real nice," he said. Her sister is a classmate of his, and she has a younger brother.

Krista Hanson graduated from the high school last year and didn't believe her mom when she called with the news.

"You never expect this to happen," she said. "Nothing like this happens here."

There will be a community prayer service at 5 tonight and a student assembly first thing Monday morning.

Saturday's accident comes on the heels of another deadly Minnesota bus crash that killed four students in February along Highway 23 near Cottonwood. That incident involved a school bus.

Pelican Rapids is located south and east of Fargo-Moorhead. The school district has about 1,000 students.

The Associated Press and Forum reporter Danielle Troske contributed to this report

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erin Hemme Froslie at (701) 241-5534