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Concerns raised over altered inspection reports in fatal Iowa school bus fire

Posted at 12:41 PM, Feb 08, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-08 18:13:19-05

The Iowa Department of Education raised concerns to federal investigators over altered inspection reports concerning a Riverside Community Schools bus involved in a fatal fire.

The fire killed 74-year-old bus driver Donnie Hendricks and student Megan Klindt in rural Pottawattamie County on Dec. 12, 2017. Initial reports from the National Transportation Safety Board indicate the fire started in the bus' engine compartment after it had backed into a ditch.

An inspection of the bus on Dec. 6, 2017, turned up three issues that would have put the bus out of service until repairs took place, according to the Iowa Dept. of Education. Only one repair had been reported to the department at the time of the fire.

Max Christensen, an executive officer of school transportation, sent a letter to the lead investigator of the NTSB in January.

According to the letter, the department believed the district had made all the necessary repairs to the bus, but failed to report all the repairs to the state before putting the bus back on the road by the time of the fatal fire.

Districts and the Dept. of Education use an online portal to keep track of inspections and repairs. While the issues were not indicated as repaired on Dec. 12, Christensen had noticed the repairs were marked as completed when he checked the portal again on Jan. 3.

Christensen became concerned the records were altered during a federal investigation, the letter states. The department first called the NTSB about the records then decided to send an official letter to document the concerns.

"I believe the repairs were made before the bus fire, but simply had not been reported to the Department," Christensen wrote. "My belief is based on the district's handwritten repair records - provided to us by the county sheriff's office - as well as an onsite visual inspection by department staff after the fire."

Districts are required to report all repairs before putting a vehicle back into commission. In Iowa, when school bus repairs are completed, the bus receives a sticker to indicate it was safe for the road.

Staci Hupp, a spokesperson for the Iowa Dept. of Education, says it isn't clear why the district reported the repairs after the bus had been totaled.

In Iowa, busses are checked two times a year.

Around 3 p.m. Thursday afternoon, Riverside Community Schools superintendent issued 3 News Now the following statement: 

"The Riverside Community School District rejects any characterization that inspection or maintenance records for bus #4 were altered.  Following the December 6 inspection of the bus, the District immediately completed all repairs noted for bus #4.  The District documented that these repairs were made, and this documentation is unchanged.  The on-site inspector from the Iowa Department of Education instructed the District to additionally note the repairs in the Department’s online system, once the inspection report was available there.  The report did not become available until December 15, three days after the accident occurred.  In the ensuing weeks, the District noted repairs for all buses that had been repaired, including bus #4, in the online system as instructed by the Department.  There is no dispute that the necessary repairs for bus #4 were completed before the accident on December 12.  Our focus has always been, and remains, on the student and employee we lost that day and ensuring the safety of our students and staff."