Students, teacher injured when semi crashes into Watford City school; car driver killed

2012-09-19T00:15:00Z 2012-09-19T16:34:28Z Students, teacher injured when semi crashes into Watford City school; car driver killedBy LAUREN DONOVAN | Bismarck Tribune Bismarck Tribune

WATFORD CITY — Superintendents of oil patch schools get cold sweats thinking about a school bus loaded with kids getting struck by an oil semi truck out on a gravel road. No one ever imagined a semi truck crashing into a school.

But on Monday at a wildly busy intersection east of Watford City, a Power Fuels transport truck struck a car and careened across the highway, through the schoolyard and into the school lunchroom.

The woman driving the car was killed in the collision and three students and one teacher sustained minor injuries.

The Johnson Corners Christian Academy, a private, Bible-based school, was built on the corner of state highways 23 and 73 in 1982.

It’s a critical intersection for local and oil traffic between Watford City and the oil field and it’s much busier than usual with semis from all directions now that state Highway 22 is detoured through it because of construction.

The Rev. Adrian Timmons said he’s been to the State Department of Transportation to try to get traffic slowed down on the highway.

The Highway Patrol said in a statement that the car in Monday’s crash failed to yield to the semi at the intersection.

The semi driver, Jason Owen, 36, of Watford City, was going near the 65 mph speed limit. Althea Mandan, 65, of Dickinson, the driver of the car, was killed.

The younger students and some of the Johnson Corners school staff were out on the playground after lunch and watched the semi come through the school fence and hit an older student’s small pickup.

The semi pushed the pickup through the building’s exterior wall, right into Timmons’ office, then slid in behind it in an area where the older students were just opening up the sandwiches they had brought from home.

The impact pushed over an interior office wall and struck one of the staff members from behind. Rafters were splintered off and the high ceiling collapsed around the semi driver.

Others had just a split second to react and get out of the way.

One of those was John Timmons, 15, who took off running into the school’s chapel and then outside the door where others were starting to gather, some frightened children still screaming and teachers trying to count heads.

Like others, John Timmons had a difficult time Monday night and slept on the floor next to his parents’ bed. The home is along the highway, too — right next to the school. The boy moved to the other side of the bed to be farther from the highway, said his mother, Priscilla Timmons.

Morgan Niemitalo of rural Watford City said his two daughters had a long night, too. It was their pickup, driven to school by Hannah, 15, that became a battering ram pushed by the semi.

On Tuesday, the mangled truck was still out in the lot. Niemitalo said he dropped work and drove to the school as quickly as he could Monday afternoon after getting a text message from his daughter.

His girls are OK.

“They were shook up, but they seem to be all right. If they put the school back together, we would come back here,” he said. “Seeing a semi in your kids’ school — how is it that no one died? It’s hard to believe.”

The Rev. Timmons said he plans to restart school Monday, somewhere.

He and others who were assessing the structure Tuesday said it seems unlikely the building can be salvaged. The damage to the rafters was severe and it’s likely even those that weren’t snapped off were cracked or compromised deeper into the structure.

The school is accredited, and Priscilla Timmons said it’s likely the schedule will have to go later in the spring to make up for these lost days.

The teaching staff returned to the building Tuesday to try to salvage books and papers and clean up the thick Sheetrock dust settled like a shroud everywhere in the building.

Kira Heltibridle said her fourth- through sixth-graders were out on the playground and she was in her classroom when she heard the collision and felt the building shake.

“I ran out and saw the kids running outside, covered in dust and limping. They were terrified,” she said.

Rachel Timmons, 16, a sophomore, said the only way she could fall asleep Monday night was by turning up her music loud enough to drown out the sound of the semis on the highway.

“The little kids who saw it happen are scared to death,” she said.

Inside the school is a chapel. Posters on the wall display Bible verses.

Religion is everywhere in the building, but Priscilla Timmons figures God himself was with them Monday.

Three of her four children were in the building, as she was. Her husband is normally in his office at noon, but was attending a church camp meeting out of state.

“I’ve got my children, and we’ve known all these kids since they were little; they’re all my children,” she said.

She hopes people won’t turn the incident into an anti-oil-worker thing.

“I hate it when people talk against them. They’re just trying to support their families,” she said.

Reach reporter Lauren Donovan at 701-220-5511 or lauren@westriv.com.

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