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Mila Koumpilova, Published April 03 2009

Pelican Rapids to gather and grieve

Last week, the Weishairs gathered in daughter Jessica’s bedroom, where they’re sometimes a bit reluctant to venture these days. Everything was as she left it, except for an unpacked suitcase.

They sang “Happy Birthday.” They had the rich chocolate cake Jessica loved. They went to her grave, in a Scandinavian church cemetery, with a cluster of balloons.

“We released them so they would go up to heaven,” said Jessica’s mom, Stacy.

Recent weeks have been especially trying for the Weishairs, with a double whammy of occasions that train an unmerciful spotlight on Jessica’s absence. Her March 25 birthday.

Then, this Sunday, the first anniversary of the bus crash near Albertville, Minn., that killed Jessica, 16, and injured fellow Pelican Rapids band members returning from a trip to Chicago.

The Weishairs – Stacy, her husband, Kim, and their children Jordan, 13, and Brooke, 19 – have discovered time is slow and inept at chipping away at their pain. But they’ve found slivers of comfort – the small gestures of friends and strangers, the daily rhythm of their barbershops, and their advocacy for motor coach seatbelt legislation.

Today, Pelican Rapids High School, where Jessica was a sophomore, hosts a Remembrance and Resiliency program to mark the anniversary. The Weishairs said they’d decide this morning if they could bear to be there.

To their knees

After the accident, an acquaintance from Kim’s hometown, Eagle Bend, Minn., who had lost a son, called. He told Kim he’d spend every waking minute keeping grief in unsteady check, but it’d sneak up on him anyway, in line at the grocery store or at the gas station: “It will hit you, and it will almost bring you to your knees.”

Kim has found that to be true.

“You think about it every day,” he says. “Not a minute goes by that you don’t think of her.”

Last Saturday, for instance, the family was watching the Pelican high school’s triumphant basketball championship game when the camera zeroed in on Jessica’s friends in the band. The Weishairs crumbled, as they do each time they see the girls.

“She should be with them,” says Stacy.

In the Weishairs’ rural Barnesville living room is a small memorial. There’s Jessica’s flute and sheets of Cajun folk songs, the last music she played in Chicago. There’s a picture of her at 4, with Brook, playing dress-up in black lacy numbers Grandma Fran had sewn out of slips. There’s a picture with her friends in Chicago, flashing her trademark dimpled smile tinged with a smidgeon of shyness.

The loss has been hard on Jordan. He and his sister went on the stomach-churning rides in amusement parks. They were looking forward to arriving at Pelican sports games in style after Jessica got her driver’s license days before her death. Says Stacy, “He lost his best friend.”

Moments of grace

The bus accident shook the Pelican Rapids community to its core

A full-time mental health professional and a practitioner joined the school district this year. School officials have discussed scheduling field trip bus rides during the day.

This month, Loren Ernst, the Moorhead driver of the overnight charter bus that veered off Interstate 94 just before 6 a.m., is scheduled to enter a plea to charges of criminal vehicular homicide and injury.

“Moving forward without Jessica is really hard,” says Superintendent Deb Wanek. “Students certainly remember her, and they’ve continued to heal.”

Jim Christianson, the owner of the school’s bus service, says he senses fear and anxiety in casual encounters with parents.

“I hear it in the voices of mothers, the unspoken question, ‘Can I trust my child with you, Mr. Christianson?’ ” says the 32-year veteran of the service, who was “super cautious” this winter about sending buses along treacherous rural routes. “Another bus from Pelican Rapids in the ditch would be salt in the community wound.”

But the scathed community has also rallied around the Weishairs.

As soon as word of the accident spread that Saturday almost a year ago, people streamed to their home bearing hot dishes, caramel rolls, coffee and boxes of Kleenex. When Kim and Stacy returned to the neighboring barbershops the couple has run for 25 years, customers dispensed hugs and memories of Jessica.

“We just didn’t realize we had this many friends,” says Stacy.

Each evening in the weeks after the accident, the Weishairs gathered in their living room and opened cards and letters from as far away as Germany and Australia.

Out of one envelope fell a picture of teenage girls that Kim in vain scanned for Jessica’s face. Along with the photo was a letter from the mother of a Texas teen killed in school bus crash in 2006. She had advocated for their state’s 2007 Ashley’s and Alicia’s Law, which mandated seat belts on school and charter buses carrying students.

That summer, Kim invited Fergus Falls Rep. Bud Nornes to his barbershop, where photos of Jessica adorn the mirror. Jessica, Kim told Nornes, would have worn a seatbelt if there had been one on the motor coach. And if she had worn one, she might have survived.

“The family wanted to do something in Jessica’s honor to limit the chances of this happening again,” Nornes said.

That’s how the bill the Weishairs hope will become Jessica’s Law was born. Nornes says the bill, which would require seatbelts on new motor coaches carrying students by 2010, appears poised for passage this legislative session.

As keeping grief in check has gotten trickier in recent weeks, the Weishairs have conjured happy memories. She kissed and told them she loved them each night. She volunteered in church, hunted deer and played basketball.

Says Stacy, “We just try to take it one day at a time.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529