COURTESY OF THE DES MOINES REGISTER
Jason Clayworth, firstname.lastname@example.org
Published 2:19 p.m. CT Feb. 12, 2018 | Updated 9:24 a.m. CT Feb. 13, 2018
A western Iowa school district that updated an inspection report more than a week after a bus fire killed two people says online delays prevented officials from reporting mechanical fixes to the state prior to the accident.
State officials acknowledge an online reporting system had not been updated to allow Riverside School officials to report the fix. But that doesn’t excuse the district from its reporting obligations prior to returning a bus to service, a state official said.
As an alternative, the district should have reported fixes through another method such as a fax or email, which was not received, said Staci Hupp, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Education.
“This gap in time” between an inspection and online availability of records “is why our guidance to school districts states that out-of-service deficiency repairs that have been made within 48 hours of inspection must be faxed to the department,” Hupp said.
The Dec. 12 fire started in the engine of the Riverside School bus after the vehicle became stuck, resulting in the deaths of 16-year-old student Megan Klindt and bus driver Donald Hendricks, 74.
The bus had its latest inspection six days before the fire, when a state inspector ordered it to immediately cease transporting children because of two mechanical deficiencies.
Riverside officials say they made the fixes — one involving an exit lock signal that was not audible and another involving a malfunctioning outside warning light — the same day as the inspection.
Those fixes were done the same day as the inspection and were documented by Transportation Supervisor Nick Bates’ handwritten initials and date on the inspection notice, district officials said.
That notice with Bates’ handwritten initials was collected from the school by Pottawattamie County Sheriff officials the same day as the bus fatalities.
The fixes had not been reported to the state agency until sometime between Dec. 19 and Dec. 29, at least seven days after the bus was destroyed by fire.
Iowa notified investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board about possible reporting improprieties in January, according to documents obtained last week by The Des Moines Register.
“I discovered that the inspection records for Riverside bus #4 had been changed to show the out-of-service items as being repaired,” Max Christensen, an executive of the Iowa Department of Education, said in the letter to National Transportation Safety Board investigators. “This concerned me, as I didn’t believe those records should have been touched or changed while the accident is under investigation by NTSB.”
It remains unknown who from the district updated the online records to reflect that the mechanical deficiencies were fixed in the state’s electronic reporting system.
Riverside Superintendent Timothy Mitchell told the Register last week there might have been a miscommunication or misunderstanding about the procedure.
Mitchell posted a note on social media late last week rejecting any characterization that inspection or maintenance records were altered after the Register published an article about the reporting impropriety.
In that social media post, Mitchell told the public that his district couldn’t update the system until Dec. 15.
“The Riverside Community School District rejects any characterization that inspection or maintenance records for bus #4 were altered,” Mitchell wrote in last week’s online post.
Mitchell said in his social media post that “there is no dispute” that necessary repairs were completed before the Dec. 12 fire.
Education officials observed from the charred bus remains that the exit lock they had cited just days before the fire had been removed from the bus. That was an acceptable fix, because the lock was not mandatory, Hupp said.
And although district officials can’t unequivocally prove the malfunctioning warning light was fixed, the handwritten note by Bates indicates it was repaired, Hupp said.
Iowa education department officials couldn’t comment on whether the cited mechanical problems — had they not been fixed as Bates’ handwritten note indicates — could have contributed to the deaths because they aren’t handling the investigation, Hupp said.
Federal officials may look at the records to determine whether the fixes had an impact on safety issues, Keith Holloway, an NTSB spokesman, said last week.
The Klindt family, meanwhile, has hired a Des Moines attorney, Brad Schroeder. They have not yet filed litigation linked to Megan Klindt’s death.
Schroeder said the school district and some of its employees made “terrible choices” in regard to the accident.
“These poor decisions have continued even after the fire,” Schroeder said. “We will share more information as our investigation moves forward, in the hope that no other family ever has to know the pain of losing a child in such a senseless and preventable tragedy.”