Mechanical repair records for an Iowa school bus were altered a week after it caught fire and killed two people, according to new inspection reports obtained by The Des Moines Register.
The inspection reports show that the bus was ordered to immediately cease transporting students after a Dec. 6, 2017, inspection—six days before the fire in Oakland, Iowa, that killed the driver, Donald Hendricks, 74, and high school student Megan Klindt, 16. The inspection found two critical mechanical failures: one involving an exit lock signal that was not audible and another involving a malfunctioning outside warning light.
The Riverside Community School District says handwritten notes initialized by the district's transportation supervisor indicate the fixes were made the same day as the inspection. But all bus repairs must be reported to the state as fixed before a vehicle is allowed to resume transporting students, according to Iowa law and state Department of Education rules.
Those fixes weren’t reported to the state as complete until sometime between Dec. 19 and Dec. 29—at least seven days after the bus had already been returned to service and was destroyed in the fire.
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board were notified by an Iowa official of the matter in a Jan. 11 letter.
“I discovered that the inspection records for Riverside bus #4 had been changed to show the out-of-service items as being repaired,” Max Christensen, an executive of the Iowa Department of Education, said in the letter to National Transportation Safety Board investigators. “This concerned me, as I didn’t believe those records should have been touched or changed while the accident is under investigation by NTSB.”
Education officials observed from the charred bus remains that the exit lock they had cited just days before the fire had been removed from the bus. That was an acceptable fix, because the lock was not mandatory, according to the state education department.
And although district officials can’t prove the malfunctioning warning light was fixed, the handwritten note by the transportation supervisor indicates it was repaired.
The fire started in the bus engine and spread to dry grass in a ditch where the vehicle had become stuck.
Iowa education department officials couldn't comment on whether the cited mechanical problems — had they not been fixed as Bates’ handwritten note indicates — could have contributed to the deaths because the NTSB is the agency conducting the investigation.
“We think the fixes were made, but the school district didn’t follow requirements in notifying us before putting the bus back on the road,” says Staci Hupp, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Education. “To us, it’s more than checking a box. These requirements are there to give the public confidence in bus inspections and the safety of school buses.”
NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway says the agency can't comment while the investigation is ongoing.
Investigations by The Des Moines Register in 2012 and 2014 found that some Iowa schools have a track record of ignoring bus inspections or falsely certifying with the state that mechanical problems as fixed. The Riverside district was not cited as a problem district in the newspaper's earlier reporting.