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School bus crash

A crumpled school bus can be seen late Wednesday night after it collided head-on with a semitruck on westbound Interstate 74 about 2 miles east of the Main Street exit on Bloomington's south side.

PEORIA -- Athletes from Peoria Notre Dame High School traverse Interstate 74 constantly, to play fellow teams in the Big 12 Conference.

School-bus safety for those trips always is paramount, according to Randy Simmons, principal of the Peoria Catholic school.

But sometimes all the precautions in the world can't prevent a tragedy like the one that happened Wednesday night. That's when two people were killed when a semi-trailer truck headed the wrong way on I-74 struck a Normal Community West High School bus that was returning girls basketball players from a game at Chamapaign Central.

Like Notre Dame and the three Peoria public high schools, Normal West and Champaign Central are Big 12 members.

"It's just a tragic, sad accident," Simmons said Thursday morning. "When you've got a semi coming the wrong way, it's hard to be real defensive. You're a sitting duck, so to speak.

"It just makes me sick to my stomach."

Thursday-morning Mass at Notre Dame was dedicated to the accident victims, Simmons said.

The 11 schools in the Big 12 are scattered along a 120-mile stretch of I-74, from Peoria on the west to Danville on the east. The Peoria schools joined the conference about four years ago.

Before that, they were part of the Mid-State 6 Conference, which had multiple permutations over the decades. In its final years, the conference was limited to Manual, Notre Dame, Peoria High and Richwoods.

Long-haul, late-night bus trips were a topic of discussion and concern when the Peoria schools were contemplating Big 12 membership, according to Simmons.

A former Peoria Public Schools administrator and coach, Simmons remembers when his teams would travel to Springfield, whose public schools were part of the Mid-State league in the 1990s. Some of those trips were made on snowy days, and nights.

"I was just hoping we get down there safely," Simmons said. "Late at night, we would travel back and I always prayed we'd get the kids to and from home safely and that our bus driver was alert."

Simmons also hopes student-athletes, many of whom are inexperienced drivers, make it home safely once the bus returns to school: "To me, the bus is half the trip."

The accident Wednesday just southeast of Bloomington provides an opportunity for the Peoria schools and others to review their bus-safety procedures, according to Simmons. He and Notre Dame athletics director Matt Blackford did just that Wednesday afternoon, hours before the wreck.

"You can't overemphasize the safety issue," Simmons said.

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