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Associated Press, Published February 21 2008

As Minnesota community mourns, investigators look to what caused deadly bus crash

COTTONWOOD, Minn. (AP) - As this small Minnesota town continued to grieve the four children killed, attention was turning to what caused the worst school bus crash in the state in two decades.

The National Transportation Safety Board was joining the Minnesota State Patrol in the investigation, as details started to emerge about a van involved in the accident and its driver.

The van was heading east on County Road 24, which has a stop sign as it ends in a T intersection with state Highway 23, the road the bus was traveling. The van struck the bus, which rolled over onto a truck.

The driver of the truck told the Star Tribune of Minneapolis that he saw the van run the stop sign.

"I saw the maroon van run a stop sign, it blew over the railroad tracks and hit the bus, sending it sliding into me," James M. Hancock, 45, of Marshall, told the newspaper from his hospital bed in Sioux Falls, S.D. "The next thing I knew, they were hauling kids out and it was chaos."

Hancock did not want to give interviews Thursday, said Kenyon Gleason, a spokesman for Avera McKennan in Sioux Falls, S.D.

The van was driven by Alianiss N. Morales, 23, of Minneota. Several media outlets reported that she didn't have a valid driver's license. The Marshall Independent, citing court records, reported Morales pleaded guilty in Chippewa County in 2006 to driving without a valid license.

State Patrol officials said Thursday they were not immediately able to confirm if Morales was unlicensed, nor could they confirm whether Morales ran a stop sign. Lt. Mark Peterson said that was still under investigation, but that the investigation was "moving forward very quickly."

Morales could not be immediately reached for comment and did not have a listed phone number. Mary Maertens, CEO of Avera Marshall Regional Medical Center in Marshall, would not confirm a report that Morales was one of the two injured patients at her hospital, but said neither of them wanted to speak to reporters.

Two brothers, the daughter of a teacher and the son of a former teacher were killed in the crash.

The Minnesota State Patrol identified the victims as Jesse Javens, 13, and Hunter Javens, 9, both of Cottonwood; Reed Stevens, 12, of Marshall; and Emilee Olson, 9, of Cottonwood. They were among the 28 students on the Lakeview School bus. At least 14 other people were hurt.

A memorial service was planned for Thursday night in the gymnasium of Lakeview School. Gov. Tim Pawlenty planned to attend, and locals expected most of Cottonwood's 1,150 residents to be in attendance.

Classes resumed Thursday at Lakeview School. Hundreds streamed into the school on Wednesday to meet with grief counselors and hear an update on the crash. Among them were Rylee Klocow, a third-grader at the school, and her mother Heidi. Emilee Olson was a classmate of Rylee's.

"She was a really good friend and I'll always remember her in my heart," Rylee said.

"It's terrible for the families," Rylee's mother, Heidi Klocow, said. "We knew a lot of people on that bus."

The bus was driven by Dennis Devereaux, 52, of Cottonwood.

Nine of the injured remained hospitalized Thursday morning but all were improving, Maertens said.

Two of the injured - one student and one adult - were in stable condition at Avera Marshall, Maertens said. Five students and one adult were at Avera McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls, where she said two were in serious condition and four were in fair condition.

The patients in Sioux Falls included one who transferred Wednesday from the Marshall hospital. A student who had been at Avera McKennan was transferred to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester to be closer to family and was in fair condition as of Wednesday afternoon, Maertens said. A patient at Sanford USD Medical Center in Sioux Falls was released Wednesday, she said.

Lakeview has about 585 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, serving Cottonwood and the nearby town of Wood Lake. The area is about 140 miles west of Minneapolis.

Emilee's mother, Traci, is a physical education teacher at the school. Reed's mother, Kandy, is a former teacher.

At a news conference, Superintendent Sheldon Johnson said Kandy Stevens had asked him to read a statement.

"She wants people to know that Reed was a young man who loved God, his country and his family. And he also loved his football family. We know that he is with the Lord, and we ask all parents to give their kids an extra hug tonight and every night."

Two of Emilee's brothers were also on the bus, and one of them, 11-year-old Sidnee, was hurt with glass in his eye. The children's father, Charlie Olson, said his sons would be OK.

"Yesterday God got four angels and he's not getting any more. That's it," Olson told KSTP-TV.

An ex-brother-in-law of Marty Javens said the deaths of Jesse and Hunter were felt by many who stopped by the Javens household on Wednesday.

"It hit everybody in the town really hard, but especially this family, with two of them gone," said Terry Lange, who added that Marty, the boys' father, also lost a daughter more than 20 years ago. In addition, Lange said, Hunter had a twin sister, and there are four older siblings in the blended family.

"All you can do is just be with them," he said of the family members. "Everybody is still in shock."

Members of the media weren't allowed into the school Wednesday. Parents and students who went described a moving scene, as "Amazing Grace" was sung and teenagers spontaneously gathered in a circle to pray.

Mary Taylor, who attended the meeting with her 17-year-old son Miles, said she was struck by ``the utter silence' when she first entered the building.

"No one knows what to do or say," she said.

Taylor said she knows all of the victims' families. ``They're very nice people, salt of the earth, decent religious people.'

The Cottonwood crash was the deadliest involving a school bus in Minnesota since at least 1985, said Nathan Bowie, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety.