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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Small-town response after fatal bus crash offers a lesson to all

UPDATED: Sat., Dec. 28, 2019

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

They thought it was just a dot on the map. By the time they left Quincy, they were family.

The tour bus left Spokane early, fully loaded with holiday tourists planning a leisurely breakfast in Wenatchee before continuing to Leavenworth. Ahead of them on the bypass route, a Quincy School District bus had stopped to pick up a student. After being rear-ended by a Jeep in dense fog, the school bus was still in the roadway.

The driver of the tour bus took evasive action, but the school bus was rear-ended a second time. The tour-bus driver was pronounced dead at the scene.

Twenty-six students and their bus driver, plus 39 tourists and their tour guide, “were transported to Quincy Valley Medical Center for evaluation” and “temporarily sheltered in the hospital’s convalescent wing,” according to previous reporting.

It sounds so simple. This is the rest of the story.

The hospital was hosting 68 patients for triage and medical care, plus parents of students, 20 school district staff, volunteer EMTs from the Grant County Fire District 3 who stayed to help, and law enforcement officers from Washington State Patrol and the Grant County Sheriff’s Office.

“There were easily more than a hundred people,” Quincy Valley Medical Center CEO Glenda Bishop said.

Imagine a thousand people simultaneously appearing at the MultiCare Deaconess emergency department for care. That’s the scale of an incident like this for any of the critical access hospitals in rural Washington.

Pastor Daniel Castillo, chaplain for the Quincy Police Department, said it was chaos at first, but everyone settled in to do what needed to be done.

“There were young people and old people and different races, but it doesn’t matter. There’s so much division right now, just treat each other with respect. You don’t think twice, you help your neighbor and that extends to those who are traveling,” Castillo said.

Jesse Slusher of Faith Community Church responded to assist Castillo in ministering to the tourists while school district staff focused on students and their parents.

The adult passengers at first insisted they were all fine, just take care of the kids. As the adrenaline wore off, bumps and bruises demanded attention, and the hospital staff’s focus shifted to health care.

So when Pastor Jesse asked what she needed, Bishop replied, “I’m not sure how we’re going to feed all these people.”

Pastor Jesse’s son Kyle Slusher, manager of the Olive Garden in East Wenatchee, offered to help.

An hour and a half later, food for 60 arrived, and it “multiplied like the loaves and fishes,” according to Bishop. “Everything you can imagine. Bowls of salad, pasta, sauces, bread sticks, even serving tongs – more than we needed and everything we needed.”

By then, Bishop had 80 hungry people at her facility. After a prayer of thanksgiving for their safety and comfort for the family of the driver who died, they broke bread together.

“At that point, they really became our family,” Bishop said.

And then another call. Tanya and Jerod Rollins had recently opened a bakery at the Quincy Public Market near the hospital. Jerod asked what she needed, and Bishop replied, “We don’t know when they’re leaving, but they have a two-hour bus ride back to Spokane. Can we give them a safe and comforting handoff?”

He returned with fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, apples, cheese and crackers, and cases of water for snack sacks.

Medical staff who had just worked a 12-hour shift stayed for another. Quincy Valley Medical Center only has one CT scanner, and checking people out was taking time. Seventeen people from one bus and 21 people from the other ran through the emergency room as patients, with 95 imaging studies to be done.

Meanwhile, time was weighing heavily on those still waiting. The hospital’s maintenance director went to town and bought cards and board games. Community members started dropping by with cookies and fruit. “White Christmas” was playing on the projection screen normally reserved for board meetings. “Temporarily sheltered” turned into “There’s a party going on.”

It was getting close to dinner time, and Jerod Rollins again asked Bishop what she needed. Bishop said she was planning to buy bread and cold cuts. Five minutes later, Jerod called back to say they’d be delivering homemade chicken noodle soup.

Dinner came in Crock-Pots with fresh-baked bread and cinnamon rolls. The last bus left at 6:30 p.m.

“We watched them pull out, and we all agreed Christmas had come 12 days early for us,” Bishop said. “We’d been able to wrap our arms around so many people in a big way.”

Cities have formal organizations to respond. Small towns have relationships.

“We need to be reminded not just in time of need, but throughout the year, to build good relationships and be a good neighbor,” said Castillo, the police chaplain.

That’s a good New Year’s resolution wherever you live.

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