State official says inspection reports suggest records altered after fatal Iowa bus fire; superintendent disputes it

State official says inspection reports suggest records altered after fatal Iowa bus fire; superintendent disputes it
World-Herald News Service

An Iowa school transportation official has called into question the changes made to inspection records for a school bus involved in a deadly fire.

The Dec. 12 fire killed a 16-year-old student and a bus driver in the Riverside Community School District. A routine inspection of the bus six days earlier — on Dec. 6 — turned up several issues that required repair.

In a statement posted to Facebook, Riverside Superintendent Timothy Mitchell rejected the allegation that the records were modified. He said school officials followed the recommendation of a state inspector and updated repair records when inspection reports were posted online.

Most of the issues flagged during the inspection were minor, such as a missing registration slip. But two mechanical problems — an inoperable warning light outside the bus and an inaudible warning signal connected to an exit lock — were considered serious enough that the bus would be required to be pulled off the road until repairs were made.

Handwritten inspection records from the Riverside district, released by the Iowa Department of Education, indicate that the warning light and malfunctioning exit lock were fixed that day. Department officials said they believe that, too.

But state officials say the district didn’t follow the right process to notify the department, which handles bus inspections, of the repairs.

Iowa school buses undergo twice-yearly inspections. If an inspection turns up so-called “out-of-service” deficiencies — issues that can sideline a bus — school districts are required to notify the state that the problems were fixed, via fax, email or an online portal that tracks inspections. That’s supposed to happen before the bus is put back in operation.

The district eventually did indicate to the state that the repairs were made, via the online portal.

But those changes came after the fatal fire on Dec. 12, raising concerns from Education Department official Max Christensen that the district was altering inspection records in the midst of an investigation into the fire’s cause.

“It’s an important requirement in place for districts to notify us,” department spokeswoman Staci Hupp said. “It’s really about reassuring the public that the bus inspection process has been followed correctly and that districts are putting safe buses back on the road.”

The discrepancies were first reported by the Des Moines Register.

On Jan. 11, Christensen wrote to the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the fire, noting that there was an “irregularity” related to inspection records.

On Dec. 12, a fire started in the engine compartment of the bus after it backed out of a driveway and got stuck in a ditch. Driver Donnie Hendricks, 74, and 16-year-old Megan Klindt, the sole student on the bus, could not escape the fire and died on the bus.

In a preliminary report released last month, federal investigators still couldn’t pinpoint the exact cause of the fire, or why Hendricks and Klindt couldn’t get out.

After the fire, sometime between Dec. 19 and Dec. 29, someone went back into the state inspections portal online and checked off that the repairs to the Riverside bus had been completed. Christensen saw the change when he checked the online records Jan. 3.

Hupp said the Education Department couldn’t comment on whether the two problems flagged by the inspection were related in any way to the fire.

But in his letter to the safety board, Christensen said he wanted the agency to know that the records had been changed.

“This concerned me as I didn’t believe those records should have been touched or changed while the accident is under investigation by the NTSB,” he wrote.

Mitchell, the Riverside superintendent, did not return a call from The World-Herald.

But in a Facebook post, he reiterated that the repairs were made immediately following the inspection. The state inspector told the district to note the completed repairs in the online portal, once the inspection report was available. The report wasn’t online until Dec. 15, three days after the fire, Mitchell said.

“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,” he wrote.

“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.”

Keith Holloway, a safety board spokesman, said the agency is continuing to look at maintenance records, the bus driver’s driving history and other factors that may have contributed to or caused the fire.

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