NORMAL— The head-on Interstate 74 bus crash that killed two and injured eight Normal West girls' basketball team players Wednesday night could have been much worse, the school district superintendent said Thursday, as staff and students spent the day helping each other cope with the tragedy.
“Looking at the condition of the bus, we probably witnessed a miracle,” said Superintendent Mark Daniel.
A semi-truck going eastbound in the westbound lanes near Downs at about 8:30 p.m. slammed into the bus carrying players back from a game at Champaign Central. Killed were the truck driver, identified by the Peoria County Coroner as Ryan E. Hute, 34, of Delmar, Iowa, and Charles Crabtree, 72, of Normal, a volunteer with the team.
None of the players hurt had life-threatening injuries. Normal West High School Principal Dave Johnson said coach Steve Price had "multiple broken bones that will require surgery," but that he was also expected to recover. The bus driver, who wasn't identified, also was hurt, officials said.
"It's a sad day today but it's also a thankful day. ... A crash of that magnitude could certainly have a much worse outcome than where we're at," Johnson said.
Crabtree kept the scorebook for away games and announced home games. Johnson said he had worked as a bus driver for many years and “had a special way of connecting with students,” frequently attended sporting events.
"He was a very caring person," Johnson said. "Everybody knew Charlie."
“Dad was the biggest giver I know,” Crabtree’s daughter Nikki Segobiano wrote in a Facebook post. “He spent the last night of his life doing what he loved, with people he loved. He gave and devoted so much of his time to the students of Unit 5. Knowing he was on that bus because he was doing his passion gives me (a) small amount of relief.”
The crash scene was southeast of Bloomington, and State Police Master Sgt. Ryan Cape said they're determining what caused the truck to be in the incorrect lane. The coroner's office said it is not known whether Hute was wearing a seatbelt or why he was traveling in the wrong direction. He died of multiple blunt force injuries.
Lupe Guerrero of Bristow, Oklahoma, was driving his semi west on I-74 and said he and another truck narrowly avoided being hit. He said via Facebook early Thursday that he saw the truck in front of him swerve violently, then "shortly after that is when I saw the blue semi heading straight towards me. I also made a violent maneuver to avoid being hit and barely missed him.
"I was looking through my rear view mirror and saw when he hit the bus behind me. It made a very loud, thunderous noise," he said.
Daniel said people poured into Normal West after the accident, some of whom were directly affected and others who wanted to offer help, including local clergy. As word of the crash spread on social media, Unit 5 directed parents and friends to go to the school.
“We've greatly appreciated the support we've received from our state superintendent and districts across the state, even districts in other states” who called to share their thoughts, support and prayers, said Daniel.
Dayna Brown, a district spokeswoman, said Normal West will be open as usual Thursday, with counselors available.
"People care about each other in this school and this community, and I think they just wanted to be together during this horrible tragedy," Brown said.
Johnson said, “It is a community school. That's why the word community is in our name, because everybody comes together.”
Derek Beigh and Roger Miller contributed to this report.