Bellevue High School football team bus flips in I-5 accident
By JOEL WILLITS
Bellevue Reporter Former Sports Writer
May 6, 2009 · Updated 2:49 PM
A charter bus carrying 38 members of the Bellevue High School football team overturned on its side Friday morning on Interstate 5 as the team was headed to Tacoma for its state semi-final game.
Eight members of the team, including six players, were transported to local hospitals, with the most serious injury said to be a concussion as a result of the crash in the southbound lanes of I-5 south near Des Moines.
The team was on its way to the Tacoma Dome to play Capital High School of Olympia when the accident occurred around 11 a.m.. The game was canceled and has been rescheduled for Monday night.
The collision occurred after what witnesses described as a “red pickup truck with racks in the bed and sides” lost a 10+ foot ladder from the rear of the truck. The ladder landed in the lanes of southbound interstate 5 just north of south 216th where it immediately became a traffic hazard. Several vehicles swerved to avoid the ladder. The bus later struck the semi truck and slammed into the side of the embankment where it flipped onto its side.
"At this point this is a criminal investigation," said Washington State Patrol Trooper Cliff Pratt. "We're looking for who lost that ladder. If it weren't for that ladder, we'd be playing football right now.
Team players and adults on the bus crawled out an emergency hatch on the bus roof and through the front windshield that had shattered in the crash.
Of the 38 passengers onboard, most of whom were players, 7 were transported to local hospitals with minor injuries including cuts and bruises and the most serious injury described by the fire department as a “minor concussion.” The only other injury reported was to the driver of an involved passenger car whom sustained minor neck and back injuries and was transported as a precautionary measure.
Bellevue had chartered two buses for the game and the bus that crashed was carrying starting players and senior members of the team, Bellevue coaches said.
Among those confirmed to be injured in the crash and transported to the hospital were players Jake Hiller, a junior lineman, and senior lineman Leonard Wolfork, Chris Buchberger, Chase Propst, and Steve Kotalik. Also injured in the crash was Bellevue "superfan" Gary Hartness, a Wolverines sideline staple who attends every game.
"He was the most injured," said Bellevue defensive coordinator Wes Warren, who was riding in a separate vehicle with Paul Moyer, a Bellevue assistant and former Seattle Seahawk whose son Nick is a linebacker on the team. "Gary couldn't make it out of the bus and he was visibly shaken up. We were worried about him the most."
Several Bellevue coaches at the crash site said the mature reaction of the players helped a bad situation unfold as well as could be expected.
"Everybody kept their wits about them," said Bellevue assistant coach Pat Jones, who was on the bus that overturned. "The kids were helping each other out and were really mature about it."
Jones was riding in the front of the bus when the accident occurred. Once the bus flipped, he broke through the window on his left and fell into a ditch a few feet below the overturned bus. Head coach Butch Goncharoff, seated to Jones' right, fell out the window and landed on top of him. Both quickly crawled back into the bus to assess the boys' injuries.
"My first thought was 'is everyone OK, is everyone alive?'," Jones said. "You were so worried someone might have passed away, and we wondered if everyone was still inside the bus."
The players all helped each other out of the bus and those who needed medical attention were taken to the hospital, coaches say. The players not needing attention were transported back to Bellevue High School.
Loka and Taiana Kanongataa were among the concerned parents who hurried to the accident scene to see their children. The Bellevue couple are the parents of junior linebackers John and David Kanongataa.
"We were getting out of the house and ready to go when John Paul called and said 'we've had an accident," Loka Kanongataa said. "We rushed over to see if everyone is OK. John Paul said when the accident happened, everyone fell on top of him.
"It was a miracle no one else was hurt."
The Kanongataas said they have older sons, both former Bellevue players, who were calling from California who had already heard the news on the TV and internet.
As Warren, Jones and Moyer lingered to pick up what gear and equipment they could from the bus, gatorade bottles, bananas, broken glass, football gloves and cleats littered the side of the highway.
"What a blessing it is that everyone is here and OK," Moyer said, watching as the Washington State Department of Transportation pulled the bus upright, revealing more damage and gear strewn at the scene. "We're pretty fortunate."
Pratt said the state patrol has some "unsubstantiated witnesses" who claim to have seen the driver of the vehicle who lost the ladder, but they had not been interviewed yet. The driver of the vehicle is facing a loss of load charge, a gross misdemeanor that carries a penalty of fines and jail time.
"People don't secure their loads and this is what it can do," Jones said, pointing at the wrecked bus. "Look at this mess. I can't believe no one got seriously hurt."
The bus was identified by markings as belonging to the Chinook Charter Service.
The WIAA has rescheduled the game for Monday night at 7 p.m. at Harry Lang Stadium in Lakewood. The Class 3A and 4A state championship games also have been rescheduled. The 3A game will now be played on Saturday, Dec. 6 at 4 p.m. at the Tacoma Dome, while the 4A final will be played on Friday, Dec. 5 at 7:30 p.m. at the same site. Tickets purchased at the Tacoma Dome for the canceled game will be honored on Monday, although Bellevue coaches say they are only worried about the safety of their players.
"I can't believe that no one got hurt worse," said Warren, whose younger brother, Cam, is an all-league safety for the Wolverines and was uninjured. "We'll see how shaken up the boys are tomorrow and go from there."
Joel Willits can be reached at 425-453-5045 or at email@example.com.