The North Dakota Highway Patrol investigation into the fatal Jan. 5 collision in Larimore between a freight train and school bus that was stopped on the railroad tracks has revealed the bus driver’s heart condition did not play a role in the incident.
Additionally, a Wisconsin State Patrol analysis of the engine control module pulled from the school bus and a post-crash inspection of the vehicle showed no mechanical deficiencies. Lt. Troy Hischer of the NDHP noted that his agency did not have the specific equipment necessary to analyze the school bus ECM.
School bus driver Max Danner, 62, and student passenger Cassidy Sandstrom, 17, were ejected and killed after a BNSF train pulling 47 intermodal rail cars struck the school bus near the front service doors. NDHP reported that the school bus “came to an abrupt stop with its front end over the railroad tracks.” The road that crosses the tracks is comprised of gravel.
Shortly after the crash, a local radio station published a Facebook post in which it reported that Sandstrom’s family said that their own interviews with their son and other victims indicated that Danner had slumped over the wheel just before reaching the railroad tracks. They also said that Sandstrom was attempting to evacuate the other students and pull Danner from his seat to move the bus when the train struck.
Yet the investigation results and video of the crash both contradict that account. Instead it was the bus driver’s failure to yield to the train that caused the collision.
NDHP obtained a search warrant to review video footage recorded at the front of the BSNF locomotive that showed the school bus approaching the railroad tracks. The video depicts “significant braking just before reaching the tracks,” and Danner appears to be sitting behind the wheel in an upright position, with no other movement detected inside the bus.
“Simply, (Danner) misjudged the stop or when he needed to stop. What we do know is he failed to yield to the train,” Lt. Hischer told STN.
“Mr. Danner died of injuries sustained in the crash,” added Dr. Mark Koponen, the deputy coroner with the Grand Forks Medical Examiner’s office who performed the autopsy. “Mr. Danner did have a significant heart condition, but it did not play a role in the crash. There was no evidence that a medical event was occurring at the time of the crash.”
NDHP said the school bus stopped on the tracks “1.5 to 2 seconds prior to being struck by the train,” which was traveling at 43 mph at the time of the crash. That section of the railway has a speed limit of 60 mph. NDHP also said the train conductor blew the whistle approximately 1,300 feet before reaching the intersection and “several times as it approached.”
The railroad crossing was marked with yellow warning signs before the intersection and crossbuck signs with stops signs at the intersection.
NDHP also said interviews with all school bus passengers support the investigation results.