FATAL WRECK

Head-on collision west of Circle kills 3

No children were riding in the school bus; both vehicles catch fire
2010-09-08T09:08:00Z 2010-09-09T09:10:03Z Head-on collision west of Circle kills 3CHELSEA KROTZER Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
September 08, 2010 9:08 am  • 

Three people were killed Wednesday morning when a Ford Explorer Sport Trac SUV hit a school bus head-on between Circle and Brockway.

Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Nyle Obergfell said the crash, reported at about 7 a.m., was at mile marker 272 on Highway 200 west of Circle.

There were no children riding the bus.

“We are thankful for that,” said Circle School District Superintendent Wade Northrup.

Northrup said the school bus driver, a woman who has not been identified, was just heading out for the morning when the crash occurred.

Obergfell said the SUV was headed eastbound on 200 west. The school bus was in the westbound lane.

“It looks like the Explorer for some reason drifted over into the westbound lane and collided head-on with the bus.”

Both vehicles caught fire. McCone County Fire Department and ambulance crews responded to the scene.

The school bus driver was killed, along with the male driver and female passenger of the SUV.

As of 2 p.m. Wednesday, students in the Circle School District were not formally notified of the bus driver’s death.

“It’s a tragedy for the people of this community and for the school,” Northrup said.

Obergfell said the driver of the SUV was from Wisconsin. Investigators are still trying to track down the passenger’s family.

A couple from Wolf Point on their way to Billings were the first on the scene of the fatal crash.

Don Whitmus said he and his wife had stopped in Circle for coffee at about 6:45 a.m., and then took Highway 200 out of town toward Billings. About four or five miles later, the couple came across the crash.

Whitmus, 70, said he went to check on the occupants while his wife called for help. He said it appeared that the SUV had crossed the center line of the road and hit the bus head on. The SUV had rolled onto its side and came to rest next to the bus.

As Whitmus approached, he heard the “crack and pop” of fire and saw the SUV ignite. The flames quickly spread to the bus.

Whitmus said he couldn’t see the two people inside the SUV, which had a Wisconsin license plate. But Whitmus could see the female school bus driver slumped over the wheel. She was not moving.

Whitmus tried to get inside the bus, but the flames were too intense. A nearby resident arrived and tried to get to the woman through the emergency exit at the back of the bus, Whitmus said, but heavy smoke drove him back.

“I just feel bad I couldn’t get in there to get her out,” said Whitmus, an agriculture insurance agent.

Whitmus said he could do little but watch helplessly as both vehicles burned. Fire crews arrived within about 10 minutes, he said.


UPDATE 12:10 p.m. : A couple from Wolf Point on their way to Billings were the first on the scene of the fatal crash this morning involving a school bus.

Don Whitmus said he and his wife had stopped in Circle for coffee at about 6:45 a.m., and then took Highway 200 out of town toward Billings. About four or five miles later, the couple came across the crash.

Whitmus, 70, said he went to check on the occupants while his wife called for help. He said it appeared the SUV had crossed the center line of the road and hit the bus head on. The SUV had rolled onto its side and came to rest next to the bus.

As Whitmus approached, he heard the "crack and pop" of fire and saw the SUV ignite. The flames quickly spread to the bus.

Whitmus said he couldn't see the two people inside the SUV, which had a Wisconsin license plate. But Whitmus could see the woman school bus driver slumped over the wheel. She was not moving.

Whitmus tried to get inside the bus, but the flames were too intense. A nearby resident arrived and tried to get to the woman through the emergency exit at the back of the bus, Whitmus said, but heavy smoke drove him back.

"I just feel bad I couldn't get in there to get her out," said Whitmus, an agriculture insurance agent.

Whitmus said he could do little but watch helplessly as both vehicles burned. Fire crews arrived within about 10 minutes, he said.


UPDATE 11:32 a.m: Three people were killed Wednesday morning when a Ford Explorer Sport Trac SUV hit a school bus head-on between Circle and Brockway.

Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Nyle Obergfell said the crash, which happened at about 7 a.m., was at mile marker 272 on Highway 200 west of Circle.

There were no children on the bus at the time of the crash.

"The Sport Trac was eastbound on 200 west and the school bus was headed west," Obergfell said. "It looks like the Explorer for some reason drifted over into the westbound lane and collided head on with the bus."

Both vehicles caught fire. McCone County Fire Department and ambulance crews responded.

The bus driver, a woman, was killed, along with the two occupants in the Explorer, a man and woman.

It is not known whether they were wearing seat belts. Speed and alcohol do not seem to be factors in the crash.


UPDATE 10:55 a.m. : Montana Highway Patrol troopers are on the scene of a fatal crash involving a school bus and another vehicle.

A MHP dispatcher in Helena has confirmed three fatalities in the crash this morning. It’s believed no children were on the bus at the time.


INITIAL REPORT: Authorities are responding to a school bus collision at milepost 272 on Highway 200 just west of Circle.

Montana Highway Patrol dispatchers said troopers arrived at the scene at about 8:15 a.m.

It is unknown whether any children were on the bus at the time of the collision.

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