Teacher dies in bus crash

American Fork High band » Several students seriously injured after driver blacks out, bus rolls on Interstate 15.
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A bus full of American Fork High School students heading home from a band competition in Pocatello, Idaho, rolled on Interstate 15 Saturday evening, killing one teacher and injuring several students.

Woodwind instructor Heather Christensen died at the scene, according to witnesses. Distraught students were singing church hymns after they received word of the instructor's death.

John Miller, who leads the American Fork band and is a music teacher at the high school, said Christensen died while attempting to save students on the bus by grabbing the steering wheel after the bus driver had an apparent medical episode, causing the bus to veer off the road.

Christensen dived for the wheel and tried to steer the bus back on course, but fell out a window as the vehicle rolled, Miller said.

"She loved her students, they were her life. I know she died trying to save them," a tearful Miller said late Saturday evening.

A meeting of band parents, to pay tribute to Christensen, is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. today in the high school band room, Miller said.

Two students were flown by helicopter and 12 were transported by ground ambulance with serious injuries to Portneuf Medical Center in Pocatello, he said. Thirty students were taken to the hospital to be examined for minor injuries. Three students were admitted overnight and the rest boarded a bus for American Fork, or went home with parents, shortly before midnight.

A total of 222 students were on the band trip, Miller said. They were divided into four buses. Forty-six students, two chaperones and the driver were on the bus that rolled.

In a telephone interview with The Salt Lake Tribune on Saturday, student James Kimball, 16, said he saw the bus roll about 7:45 p.m. as the group traveled south on I-15 near McCammon, Idaho -- about 143 miles north of Salt Lake City.

Kimball said the buses were traveling from a band contest at Idaho State University's Holt Arena when the accident happened. Kimball, who was in the bus that followed the one that overturned, said he looked up to see the bus ahead of him bouncing across the roadside.

"I was on the bus right behind it. We were watching a movie and I looked forward and saw the bus bouncing across the side of the road," Kimball said.

"The bus flew off to the side, bumped across a couple hills and rolled over."

Kimball watched as four to five students were loaded into ambulances with injuries. More students were taken to the hospital as the evening progressed.

Kimball said students were told the driver of the bus that rolled reportedly had a sudden stomachache that caused her to "black out."

The woman was removed from the bus on a stretcher, he said.

Idaho State Police Cpl. Brady Barnes said investigators will continue to examine what caused the accident. He couldn't comment on the bus driver's medical condition. He said the bus went off the right shoulder of the road; the weather was clear and dry at the time of the accident.

Kimball said students who witnessed the accident "are pretty shaken up."

"I'm in denial," he said.

American Fork parents Gary and Ellen Wilson traveled to Pocatello to watch their two children and a nephew compete in the competition. The Wilsons, who were in their own car, stopped at the crash site. Ellen Wilson's daughter, Ashlyn Peterson, was on a bus following the bus that flipped.

The Wilsons went to wait with Peterson on her bus after the accident and were there when a teacher came on board to inform students that Christensen died.

"They broke out in sobs," Ellen Wilson said. "She was dearly loved. She will be sorely missed."

Peterson echoed her mother's comments. She said Christensen's dedication at helping students advance their music talent was inspiring.

"She had a really good sense of humor. She loved teaching, you could tell that every day," Peterson said.

American Fork High School Principal Carolyn Merrill said she is preparing to help students deal with the loss of their teacher and the aftermath of the accident.

"I know this is a difficult situation for my students. I will be dealing with the sadness that will be at my school. I'm saddened. We all are," said Merrill, reached at her American Fork home Saturday evening.

She said she wants to wait to speak about Christensen until after the teacher's family has had more time to process her death. She praised her for what she called her "wonderful attributes."

Peterson said the American Fork band took first place at the Pocatello competition, but excitement about the performance was quickly replaced with grief over losing Christensen.

Students and faculty who are part of the band have a close relationship, she said.

"We're practically family. It's our home away from home," Peterson said.


Memorials popping up for teacher, students involved in bus accident

Students at American Fork High School and from across Utah poured out their grief as news of Saturday's bus accident spread.

Early Sunday, a page on the popular social networking site Facebook had already been created so people could share their feelings about the accident.

The page, titled "Best Wishes to American Fork Marching Band," (www.facebook.com) included this message from creator Nicole Ann Simpson:

"In these terrible times, we all need to come together to recover. All band and color guard members throughout the region, and beyond if you like, join up to show your support to the American Fork Marching Band as they recover from this hardship and let them know that while we may compete against each other, we are all family and we wish them the best."