Case Update: Our Most Precious Cargo

STORY BY: Sonya Heitshusen

OAKLAND, Iowa — Call it foreshadowing or a premonition, 16-year-old Megan Klindt seemed to know she wasn’t safe on her school bus.

“She went to the principal’s office and complained about Donnie’s driving,” says her mother, Natalie Klindt. “She didn’t feels safe. She told me this.”

Megan Klindt died on that Riverside Community School District bus on December 12, 2017. So did the driver of the bus, Donnie Hendricks. The bus caught fire after Hendricks backed into a ditch across the road from the Klindt’s home.

Megan’s parents say she was everything they could want in a child. “She’d surprise us in so many ways,” says Natalie Klindt. “We’d get up in the morning and maybe she’d started breakfast.” “She loved being outdoors,” remembers Glen Klindt. “If you were having a bad day, she made sure she was making you smile before long.”

The Klindts chose her, fostering her at the age of seven and then adopting her seven years. later. “She was just one of us,” says Glen.

She is still a part of them, even though she was taken from them.

Natalie will never forget the call she received from the Riverside Community School District’s bus barn on December 12th. One of the workers told her Hendricks had called the bus barn to report a fire on the bus about 10 minutes after Megan boarded.

“He said would you just go out and look – see if you can see anything. So I took the phone out and I see the bus right in the driveway on fire,” says Natalie. “And I see the bus driver hanging out the window. And I said, ‘Where’s my daughter? Just throw her out the window. I’ll catch her.’ He said I can’t get out. How am I going to help get her out?”

Glen, a truck driver, was more than two hours away from home when he got a frantic call from his wife.

“I remember screaming back ‘Get her off.’ Then the phone went dead. Then a little bit later she called me again and told me Megan was gone. I just wish I could have been here. Somehow, I’d gotten into that bus. Maybe I’d been layin’ in there with them. But that’s what dad’s do. They do what they gotta do to save their children.”

Many wonder why Megan and Donnie couldn’t save themselves. “We did wonder,” says Bobbie Finley. “We still wonder.”

Finley is the Transportation Coordinator of the I-35 School District. She oversees 10 of Iowa’s 6,800 school bus drivers. The Riverside accident hit them hard.

“It’s tough when you’re in this line of work. These are the world’s most precious cargo. So, it kind of hits home.”

School districts are required to conduct school bus evacuation drills with their students twice a year. Finley ordered additional drills after the Riverside accident. “We’re gonna make sure every kid in our district knows how to open the windows, roof hatches, knows how to open the doors, front and back.”

We asked the Riverside School District for records, documenting their evacuation drills, but the District told us it doesn’t have them. That’s because state law doesn’t require documentation that the drills are completed.

Max Christensen, the Director of Transportation for the Iowa Department of Education, says that will soon change. “One of the things we have decided is that we’re going to ask school district to acknowledge to us that they are doing these twice a year. That will become part of our annual transportation report.”

Christensen says the State hopes to learn from the tragedy. So do safety officials on the national level. A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board shows the fire started in the engine compartment and spread to the rest of the bus, which had been the subject of three recalls, all of which investigators confirmed had been performed. We also know the bus received one of its two annual inspections six days prior to the fire. The most serious violations: Nonfunctional outside warning lights and an inoperable warning signal of the rear emergency exit. The bus was taken out of service until the necessary repairs were made and placed back on the road the same day.

Christensen says the inspection doesn’t raise any red flags. “It’s actually a fairly typical inspection.”

He adds that school bus fires are not that unusual. There is about one every day in the United States. “But deaths related to school bus fires are very unusual,” says Christensen.

The Klindts don’t believe the bus is to blame for their daughter’s death. They blame the bus driver, Donnie Hendricks.

“At the supper table, she said, ‘Donnie is gonna kill me yet,'” says Glen.

Natalie says Megan also told them about accidents while Hendricks was behind the wheel. “She told us how he’d backed into an electrical pole and parents had taken their children off the bus.”

The Klindts also blame the school district for allowing him to remain behind the wheel. They believe he was physically unfit to be a school bus driver. “We had seen Donnie with a walker,” says Natalie. He had already had back surgery before and he was getting another one.”

In Iowa, school bus drivers must be examined by a doctor every other year. Hendricks received his driver’s authorization from the Department of Education in August of last year, four months before the accident. It was scheduled to expire in August of 2018.

“Keep in mind that any doctor that is worried about a driver in Iowa, they can make them come in every year. The can make the come in every six months,” says Chris Darling, the Executive Director of the Iowa Pupil Transportation Association.

He also points out that a superintendent or transportation director can also pull drivers off duty at any time.

“We watch each other like hawks,” says Darling. “And you can’t find better people than school bus drivers… school bus drivers need to manage 20 to 40 kids every day while they’re trying to focus on driving, focus on distracted drivers and the people that illegally run stop bars. I mean there is so much going on out there that a driver has to keep track of it’s amazing what they do and how successful they are at it.”

The Klindts say they understand, but they believe the standards should be even higher.

“I really think a bus driver ought to be held accountable, be able to drive the child and carry them off the bus,” says Glen Klindt. “A bus driver should be able to do that. I don’t think that’s asking too much.”

But there are no lifting requirements or age limits for school bus drivers. The average ages of a school bus driver in Iowa is a little more than 59-years-old, up from 58-years-old five years ago. Darling says there’s a reason for that. The pay, about $15 to $20 an hour, isn’t great and benefits are scarce.

“We need to get them health care. Right now your best bet is somebody who’s retired or has their own business because they have a flexible schedule.

The Klindts say increased wages would be a small price to pay to guarantee the safety of our State’s “most precious cargo.” “If we need to start paying our bus drivers more money then let’s do it,” says Glen. “I don’t want to ever read through anything like this ever again.”

The Klindts chose Megan, but Glen says he would not choose this for any other parent.

“Because if you haven’t been through it, I tell you what, it’s one of the worst things you can ever go through. And to have to walk outside your own door an see her cross where she gave her life… I don’t wish that on nobody.”

The family of Donnie Hendricks declined to comment on this story. The Riverside Community School District declined to answer our questions, but Superintendent, Tim Mitchell, did issue this statement: “The Riverside Community School District appreciates your invitation to participate in an interview regarding the school bus accident that occurred on December 12. However, we respectfully decline your request at this time. Please know that we think of Megan Klindt and Donnie Hendricks every day, and we are steadfast in our commitment to ensuring the safety of all students and staff.”