EDITORIAL: Reporting hometown tragedy all too real

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By Correne Martin

It was a scene similar to those you only view on the nightly television news. A school bus crunched up off the road, and emergency personnel hurrying to pull kids out for medical attention. Frantic parents wander about searching for their own children. Stunned onlookers stand aside, talking about the injured and guessing at what happened.

As a 13-year community journalist, I’ve witnessed so many accidents of varying degrees of gravity that I’ve lost count. I’ve chronicled and photographed fatalities involving Amish buggies, semis blasting through a home or down an embankment into the woods, motorcycles, tractors and one particular rollover in which I believe a greater power saved lives.

But this accident, the one a few miles down County P from River Ridge High School Tuesday afternoon, has particularly broken my heart. Young children were injured and, as of press time, the full extent of those injuries isn’t yet clear.

There’s no accident scene that’s ever easy for me to encounter. Though, certainly, when it involves the children of my own classmates, it makes it all the more difficult to keep my journalism hat on straight and push my personal anguish aside momentarily.

You see, I’m a River Ridge alumna and some of my best friends and family still live in the small communities that make up River Ridge: Bagley, Patch Grove, Bloomington, Mt. Hope. Some of their kids were on that bus. The bus driver involved manned the “late bus” wheel after sports practices when I attended River Ridge. The accident also happened just a half-mile down County P from where I crashed my own car at age 16, and, thanks to my seat belt, walked away with minor bumps and bruises. A mile down Morgan Road, too, is the home farm where my dad and his 16 Morgan siblings were raised.

I heard about the crash Tuesday just 15 minutes after it happened. I was in Prairie du Chien and made my way to the location via Borah Ridge Road. Because I grew up just 10 miles down the road in Bagley, I knew County P traffic would be blocked. I had heard, as many did, misinformation that the bus had rolled. Thank God it did not. But not knowing so, I was literally sick to my stomach driving there. I wondered if I knew the kids involved. I was afraid of what I might see.

As I rushed out of my vehicle, camera in hand, to capture the breaking news, my journalist state of mind took over. I shot pictures of the bus and dump truck damage, kids being pulled from the bus, emergency medical staff, etc. I got the job done. As I took pictures and video, my reporter’s hat slipped off though and I started to notice many familiar faces from my hometown area. I watched a dad I used to baby-sit for and an EMT who was with me during my first ambulance ride both carry young students on stretchers to ambulances. I watched parents talking amongst each other, no doubt worried how serious the injuries might be. I talked to my dad’s neighbor, my cousin’s cousin and his dad; I asked how their children and grandchildren were. I looked around and saw my high school social studies teacher leaning on a field gate, sullen-faced and deeply concerned, as we all were. I kept checking my phone, and almost instantly, Facebook posts from family and friends began flooding my feed with #PrayForRiverRidge.

I knew it was time to finish gathering pictures and information and then exit the crash scene, back to the office to post the breaking news details and eventually move on to other news obligations I had Tuesday evening.
Of course, at the end of the night, I got to go home to my beautiful 4-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter, pick them up, hug them and tuck them into bed. I may have even got a few extra snuggles from them.

Yet, I still can’t shake the tragic events that have unfolded for my hometown River Ridge community. My heart hurts for my friends and their loved ones. I pray they’re injuries—physical and emotional—can be healed as soon as possible.

I imagine what it might be like to endure what the parents are experiencing in the aftermath of this incident. It makes me weak at the knees. I know the support is there for my River Ridge friends though, not only in those communities but also in the surrounding cities as well.

It’s second nature for the people of our small towns to spring into action the moment they’re needed. We pull together to lift each other up. We hope and pray for safety, security and shelter from the harsh realities of our ever-troubled world. We offer anything we can to bring solace in situations like this. We are lucky to live in these rural communities. We can and will rally together.

In closing, I can’t help but think about the school renovation project that has been highly publicized—controversy and all—within the River Ridge School District. It’s been a tough few years over there. But, this tragic bus accident is perhaps a reminder that our communities are only as strong as our people are when they come together.

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