The scene would make any parent gasp.
A school bus was flipped on its side with the rear emergency door kicked open, the windshield and side windows shattered. There were bloody marks on the ceiling.
A mangled yellow Jeep Wrangler was nearby, not far from a tan Jeep Cherokee with front-end damage.
The horrific three-vehicle crash at 8 a.m. Friday in rural northern Lake County left one driver dead. However, the 34 students on the bus suffered only minor injuries, even though the vehicle rolled over during the crash, authorities said.
Lake County sheriff's office operations chief Brian Keller said the high-backed seats played some role in protecting children, and young children are more resilient than adults. Maybe it was something more.
“Honestly, it really is a miracle and a blessing that not one of these kids is more seriously injured than they are,” Keller said.
Officials say one of the vehicles ran a red light at the fully signaled intersection of Route 173 and Kilbourne Road near Wadsworth moments before the crash, and they are working to determine which had the right of way. No charges have been filed.
Keller said police have conflicting witness statements about what happened.
Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran said the driver of the Wrangler, Philip Smith, 62, of Beach Park, died at the scene.
The school bus was carrying the students and the driver to Newport Elementary School, Beach Park Elementary District 3 Superintendent Robert DiVirgilio said. The school serves kindergarten through fifth-grade students.
“It was scary,” said third-grader Mariah Smith of Zion, who was on the bus and lost a shoe. “At first, I didn't know what was going on.”
Mariah's father, Cliff Smith, came upon the accident site as he was headed to the College of Lake County. He reunited with his daughter at Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, where 25 kids were taken.
“I'm feeling better now,” Smith said. “It was a rough morning.”
Dr. Debra Susie-Lattner, vice-president of Medical Management at Condell, said all of the injuries they treated were minor. Bruises, scrapes and some broken bones were reported.
Social workers from the school and hospital were in the emergency room with families to work through the trauma, she added.
Six bus passengers, ages 5 to 11, were taken to Vista Medical Center East in Waukegan, spokesman John Griffin said.
One 11-year-old girl was in fair condition with a skull fracture. She was stabilized and taken by ambulance to Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago. Five other students were in good condition, he said.
Authorities said the driver and passenger of the Cherokee were picked up immediately after the accident by an unidentified motorist and taken to Vista Medical Center West in Waukegan. Griffin said they were in good condition.
Three other students were sent to St. Catherine's Medical Center in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., according to a spokeswoman. Their conditions were unknown.
Lake County sheriff's Sgt. Sara Balmes said a deputy accompanied the bus driver to a hospital. Her condition was unknown Friday. Balmes would not identify the driver or the hospital.
Keller said the initial investigation shows the bus was heading west on Route 173, the Cherokee was eastbound, and the Wrangler was driving south on Kilbourne when they converged at the intersection.
Speed limits are 55 mph on Kilbourne and 45 mph on Route 173.
Keller said the bus slammed into the passenger side of the Wrangler. He said the bus flipped, rolled over, then landed on its passenger side and slid across the road, where it hit the Cherokee. The bus continued sliding, and eventually came to rest facing east in the westbound lane, Keller said.
Barbara Taylor said she heard the loud thud, saw the bus on its side and ran from her house at the northwest corner of Kilbourne and Route 173 with blankets.
She ran to the bus and saw crying children suffering from mostly eye injuries and bloody noses.
“They were scared, and they didn't seem to know what happened,” Taylor said.
The Route 173 intersection was closed until about 6 p.m. while investigators examined the crash scene. They will use witness statements, vehicle computer evidence, skid marks, debris and other elements to determine what happened.
“You treat it like a crime scene. It's a matter of piecing it together,” Keller said.
The bus was owned by Durham Bus Services, said spokesman Blaine Krage. He said the company is working with authorities to determine the cause of the crash.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of the driver of the Jeep who sustained fatal injuries, as well as with all of those affected by this accident,” Krage said in an emailed statement.
The last documented fatality on a school bus in Illinois was in 2003, when a 14-year-old girl was killed after the bus driver drove off a downstate road, overcorrected and overturned the bus. The driver and 15 others were severely injured in the crash.
Statewide, less than 1 percent of crashes involving school buses have resulted in a fatality of any kind between 2007 and 2011, according to the most recent Illinois Department of Transportation data.
In those five years, 15 occupants of other vehicles involved in a crash with a school bus have died and another 1,200 were injured.
According to an IDOT spokesman, there were 53 accidents at the intersection of Kilbourne and Route 173 between 2004 and 2011, including 24 injury crashes and one fatal crash.
Because of the high total, the intersection received traffic signals in August 2012 as part of the federal Highway Safety Improvement Program. There is no information on whether crashes decreased after traffic signals were installed, state officials said.
Authorities said 27 fire departments from northern Illinois and southeastern Wisconsin participated in the rescue effort, and 18 ambulances were sent to scene.
Newport Fire Protection District Chief Mark Kirschhoffer could not explain how the children were not more seriously injured.
“Amazing,” he said. “Thank God it turned out that way.”
Daily Herald staff writers Eric Peterson, Jake Griffin, Jessica Cilella and Russell Lissau contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.