MINNEAPOLIS – It stuck out in the first video images from the freeway bridge collapse: a bright yellow school bus, sitting on the concrete deck, slightly tilted to one side perhaps, but more or less upright amid the wreckage.
At the White House on Wednesday night, staffers, directors and concerned neighbors recounted the events leading up to an almost unbelievable outcome. A bus from an inner-city summer youth program, full of kids still wet from a day at a suburban water park, fell nearly 65 feet into the Mississippi gorge, and no one was killed or even seriously injured.
"It was a miracle," said Tony Wagner, president of Pillsbury United Communities, which runs the community center, along with others.
As of 11 p.m. Wednesday, in fact, only one person on the bus, a Waite House staffer, was even being held overnight at the hospital, according to Wagner. In all, there were 50 kids on board, plus a driver from First Student bus company, and eight Waite House staff members.
When he saw the initial reports on television news broadcasts, Wagner saw the yellow bus. He did not know until later, when notified by Cheryl Jensen, Pillsbury's vice president of neighborhood centers, that it was the bus full of kids, aged 6 to 11, from Waite House, which is located in the Phillips neighborhood in south Minneapolis.
On a hot day on the first of August, these kids had spent an afternoon blowing off steam at Bunker Beach Water Park in Coon Rapids and were heading home.
Driving 20 minutes in to Waite House from his home, Wagner's mind raced.
"I fully expected before I got there that it was going to be a horror story," he said Wednesday.
By the time he got there, just past 8 p.m., more news, most of it good, had begun filtering in from parents, kids and staffers at Red Cross, where the parents were told they could pick up their children. Just 10 people, nine of them children, had required check-ins at the hospital, and all but the adult staffer were reportedly released.
An hour later, bunches of neighbors and a few parents milled around in front of Waite House. Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin stopped by to get information and offer his support.
At the scene of the bridge collapse, Waite House staffer Jeremy Hernandez was "instrumental in getting the kids out the back door of the bus" after the passenger door was smashed against a guard rail, Wagner said. From there they were able to climb or be helped away from the scene.
At 11 p.m. Wagner and a half dozen staffers remained at Waite House, fielding calls and getting news updates.
Everyone agreed it could have been so much worse.
"All I could think was, thank God that bus didn't go in the river," said Kelly Morgan, a resident of the nearby Little Earth housing project who came to Waite House when she heard the news.