Chippewa Falls Bus Crash Story

chippewa-falls-busHere is the story of the Chippewa Falls Bus Crash, which happened early Sunday morning, October 16, 2005, on I-94 westbound, near Osseo, Wisconsin. At approximately 01:58, a tractor trailer overturned, blocking both lanes of the westbound I-94. About one minute later, a 55 passenger motorcoach, operated by Chippewa Trails, Inc., and carrying members of the Chippewa Falls High School Band smashed into the overturned trailer, blocking the highway. Five people in the bus, including the driver, were killed. This is their story.

If you want the whole story, go here for the NTSB report, dated September 16, 2008. The summary below is taken from the NTSB report.

Around 19:30 on Friday night, 22 year old Michael Kozlowski departed Munster, IN, in a Whole Foods Market, Inc. tractor-trailer, bound for Minneapolis, MN. At 01:58, Kozlowski was approaching milepost 85 on I-94 westbound near Osseo, when the tractor exited the road onto the right shoulder. Kozlowski steered to the left in an attempt to correct, but lost control on the rig, which then overturned onto its right side, sliding across both lanes of westbound travel. Kozlowski stated to the Wisconsin State Patrol (WSP) he then turned off the ignition of the truck, once it had come to rest, and that he was still belted into his seat.

chippewa-falls-aerialAbout one minute later, the Chippewa Trails bus, driven by 78 year old Paul Rasmus, came upon the Whole Foods trailer blocking the road. The Whole Foods trailer was on its side, so the reflective tape and other reflectors were not visible. It was the bottom of the trailer which was facing the lane of travel at the time of the accident. The WSP approximate that the bus was traveling around 70 MPH prior to braking. Witnesses from the bus state the bus did suddenly decelerate right before impact. In addition to the five fatalities, another five bus passengers were seriously injured. The helicopters began arriving 30 minutes after the crash, to airlift the injured to the hospital.

At the time of the accident, Kozlowski’s Indiana CDL A was suspended. He received a speeding ticket on July 3, 2005 for driving 76 MPH in a 55 MPH zone in a car. He did not pay the ticket, and his license was suspended on September 21, 2005.

On Thursday night, October 13, Kozlowski took a load from Munster, IN at 20:45, delivering in Minnesota early on Friday morning October 14. According to written notes found in the truck (Kozlowski had not filled out his log book, as required), he slept in the sleeper from 09:00 to 16:30 on Friday October 14 in Minnesota. He then left Minnesota, and made the return trip to Indiana, arriving at 22:30.

Once arriving back home, Kozlowski went to a bar, where he drank alcohol with friends. Statements taken from friends establish that he arrived home around 06:00 on Saturday morning. Cellphone records indicate he began using his phone almost continually from 11:00 to 17:00. NTSB concludes that he was probably asleep from 06:00 to 11:00 on Saturday morning, which is 5 hours. They do not believe he slept during the afternoon period, due to the numerous phone calls he made.

He arrived at the Whole Foods Distribution Center at 19:00, and departed there, bound for Minneapolis at 20:00 on Saturday night, October 15. Except for a brief stop for a soda and bathroom, plus a 30 minute stop in Tomah, WI at 00:30, Kozlowski drove continuously until the accident.

Kozlowski’s statement to the WSP was that he was slowing the truck, looking for a place to pull onto the shoulder, in order to urinate. He stated once he eased the truck onto the shoulder, the wheels “grabbed gravel” and jerked the truck to the right, off the roadway. He was unable to regain control. The post-accident investigation indicated the truck was in 10th gear at the time of the crash, and going approximately 66 MPH. The NTSB does not believe Kozlowski was slowing the truck, or attempting to pull off onto the shoulder at the time of the crash.

Two witnesses stated the Whole Foods truck was driving erratically in the time leading up to the crash. One of them stated the truck was weaving, and driving onto the shoulder as little as 10 minutes before the crash. There was no evidence Kozlowski was intoxicated at the time of the crash.

Paul Rasmus was the 78 year old driver of the bus, who was killed on impact. He was required to wear corrective lenses. He corrected vision was 20/20 in the left eye, and 20/25 in the right eye. Without his glasses, his vision was slightly worse than 20/40.

On Friday, October 14, Rasmus reported for work at Chippewa Falls at 14:30. He left Chippewa Falls around 17:30. They unloaded at the Oregon Middle School at 21:30, drove to Middletown, WI, where they checked into a hotel around 00:01 on Saturday October 15. Rasmus and the other drivers had breakfast around 08:00 on Saturday morning. At 11:00 they returned to the Oregon Middle School where they had lunch with the band. After lunch, the driver rested in the motorcoaches. Around 15:15, they loaded the buses, and drove to Whitewater, WI, arriving at 17:00. They watched the band’s performance, loaded the buses around 22:00, and departed at 23:00, heading from Whitewater, WI back to Chippewa Falls, WI.

At the time of the crash, the weather was clear, and there was nearly a full moon. Rasmus was approximated to be traveling around 70 MPH before braking. He was not wearing his glasses at the time of the crash.

In April, 2007, Kozlowski was tried for 5 counts of homicide by negligent operation of vehicle, among other charges stemming from the accident. After a two week trial in Hudson, WI, Kozlowski was acquitted on all charges. The District Attorney attempted to prove that Kozlowski was fatigued at the time of the crash, and that is what caused him to turn over his truck.

Kozlowski’s attorney, Earl Gray, argued that it was bus driver Paul Rasmus who was at fault for the crash, in that he should have been able to stop in time. Gray argued Rasmus should have had with glasses on, which would have enabled him to have seen the truck in time to stop. Also, the bus had two brakes which were out of adjustment at the time of the wreck, increasing the amount of distance it took to stop the bus.

Trial, Part 2
Federal prosecutors tried Kozlowski this past week for making false entries on his logbooks in the days leading up to the accident. After a two day trial, Kozlowski was convicted on Wednesday, May 13, 2009. He will be sentenced July 24, 2009. Jurors were not told about the accident during the trial.

My Analysis
Ok, those are the facts, now what do we make of all this? The NTSB investigation determined that on the night of the crash, with his low-beam headlights on, the soonest Rasmus would have seen the truck in the road was when he was 227 feet from it. At 70 MPH, he would have covered the distance in 2.2 seconds to the truck. They concluded Rasmus could not have applied the brakes, and stopped the vehicle in 2.2 seconds. Furthermore, they concluded if he had his glasses on, he would not have seen the overturned truck that much sooner to make a difference.

I agree with their findings. It takes a long time to stop an 80,000 lb. truck, well it takes a long time to stop a loaded 55 passenger motorcoach, traveling at 70 MPH, too. There’s no way he could have avoided hitting the truck. This includes whether he had his glasses on, or if the bus had perfectly operating brakes.

As for the criminal trial, I guess Mr. Kozlowski’s lucky I wasn’t on that jury. Well, I guess I can’t say that, because I don’t know what level of proof was needed to meet the standard of “homicide by negligent operation of vehicle”. Plus, I don’t know how many years in jail he would have gotten if convicted. 20 years in jail, would that have been justice? I don’t know, that might be too many.

Still, there can be no doubt Kozlowski was negligent. To me, negligent means stupid and reckless. The witnesses who testified they saw the truck weaving onto the shoulder proved that for me. Kozlowski had been weaving for at least an hour prior to the accident, and was seen on the shoulder just 10 minutes before the accident. This should have told him, pull off at the nearest exit, take a siesta in the sleeper, feel better, get down the road in one piece. But he didn’t do that. Plus, the nonsense about pulling over to urinate, BS. They found the truck in 10th gear, he wasn’t slowing down, he wasn’t pulling over…. at least not intentionally.

As for Rasmus, some old truck driver way back when told me you should never “overdrive” your headlights, which apparently is what happened here. Still, I’m more willing to give Rasmus the benefit of the doubt. For him to have avoided this accident would have taken a sixth sense, or a miracle.

On the false log conviction, this proves what I have been saying for 15 years about the logbooks, and a driver’s hours of service. You can cheat all you want, and you’re probably going to get away with it 90% of the time. But if you screw up, and kill someone, they’re going to find out everywhere you’ve been for at least 72 hours prior to the accident. If they have to send out 50 cops interviewing all your friends, enemies, whatever, they’re going to figure it out. God help you if your logs don’t match where you actually have been.

That’s what happened here. Note: Kowlozski was convicted for falsifications which didn’t even happen on the day of the accident! He was convicted for logs he falsified days in advance of the wreck, which had nothing to do with the wreck.

One last thought, I was very surprised with some of the comments at the conclusion of the news articles regarding the accident, and the trials afterwards. A majority of people blamed the bus driver, including a good number of truck drivers. I don’t why that surprises me, but it does. The one responsible for this accident is Kozlowski, and I’m glad he was convicted on the false logs counts. He’ll probably do 1-3 years in jail, which is probably an equitible judgment for what he’s done.

7 thoughts on “Chippewa Falls Bus Crash Story

  • June 4, 2009 at 7:50 am

    This is really a tragic moment. hope they’ll get the right justice they deserve. i pray for the fast recovery for the others

  • August 20, 2009 at 10:32 am

    An update in this case. On July 31, 2009, the federal judge in this case, Barbara Crabb, ruled she made an error in instructing the jury, and has thrown out the conviction of Michael Kozlowski on the 5 false logs. Kozlowski has not been acquitted, the judge has scheduled a new trial. However, she raised the standard of proof, so it is doubtful the government will re-try the case.

  • September 30, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    dear Eric,
    You are a f*cking dumbass. you think that this is all the truck drivers fault. mind you he did cheat his logs but how does a seperate wreck make him responsible for what a 78 year old man driving too fast for conditions did. Rasmus was driving to fast and outdriving his headlights making him the dipshit that killed the people, not the truck driver. Next time you make an assumption like that you should use a little common sense…

  • October 1, 2009 at 11:31 pm

    Brandon: Thank you for taking the time to comment. I didn’t say Rasmus bore no responsibility for the accident. But who made the bigger error? The NTSB re-created the accident, and determined a driver wouldn’t have seen the overturned truck in time to stop whether he was going 70 MPH, 65 MPH, or even 55 MPH. So what about the truck driver? You think it’s ok this guy fell asleep and flipped his truck over blocking the whole highway? A witness saw his truck weaving for miles before the accident. This means the driver knew he was sleepy, but rather than pull over and take a nap, he kept going, and he lost it. The accident never happens if the truck driver had acted responsibly. Dumbass? Whatever guy……….

  • July 31, 2010 at 2:48 pm

    The bottom line here is that M.K. should NOT have been on the road at all. He was breaking the law by driving period, not to mention all the other aspects of this case. To blame the bus driver is assinine! You put someone w/ 20/20 vision out there in the same situation and the outcome will be the same! Blaming someone who cannot defend himself becuz he was murdered by this POS truck driver is just… disgusting. I hope M.K. suffers greatly in this life .. KARMA is a.. well you know..

  • May 10, 2011 at 9:56 am

    Rest in Peace Paul. You did nothing wrong. You were a great man, a loved man, a truely missed man. Kozlowski did not servce justice, however i know that would not matter to you. To you, only the well being of the kids mattered to you. I miss you truely. So very, very much. Slander against your name makes me sick. I love you Paul, forever and ever and ever.

  • October 2, 2021 at 8:19 pm

    Yes… if I had been on his jury there would at least be one person with a conscience. The only guilty culprit here is the jackass who gets his license suspended, spends valuable sleep time drinking & talking on the phone, & attempts to drive a long distance in a safe manner. Poor bus driver & 4 others paid with their lives… he should be in prison for a decade or more…. what a travesty.

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