Despite broken vertebrae, Kim Dahl got the school bus brake on and the ignition off when the I-35W bridge dropped beneath her.
The kids on driver Kim Dahl's yellow school bus pumped their arms, urging Taystee truck driver Paul Eickstadt to honk his horn as he passed and waved.
With more than 50 kids aboard, including two of her own, Dahl's bus had just about crossed the Interstate 35W bridge when the roadway fell beneath them. The 30-foot free fall crunched two vertebrae in Dahl's lower back when it landed on what remained of the bridge. Eickstadt's truck erupted in flames to her left.
"God gave that bus wings to land as safe as it did," Dahl said Wednesday, two weeks after the collapse, during a ceremony to honor her and three others at the First Student bus terminal in Arden Hills.
It was one of the first public appearances for Dahl since the perilous ride home from a water park field trip for kids from the Waite House community center. She was sporting a plastic back brace signed by kids from the center on Wednesday -- her 31st birthday.
She gingerly hugged youth center worker Jeremy Hernandez, 20, whom she hadn't seen since he kicked out the rear emergency door and started handing kids down to Gary Babineau, 24. Babineau's pickup fell with the bridge, too, and he helped the kids get off the bus and on to safety.
"I preach and preach during evacuation drills, that if the driver isn't able to respond, someone has to step up to the plate and get the kids off the bus," Dahl said. "I'm really proud of Jeremy. He prevented something tragic and horrific when I couldn't because I was hurt."
'A silver lining'
Though Dahl declined to give many details about what happened, others who were on the bus that day helped paint the picture of her role.
With shattered windshield glass showering her, Dahl clamped on to the steering wheel with both hands and planted her right foot on the brake. Despite the pain, she inched her left foot over to set the parking brake.
On her right, the group's youth director, Julie Graves, had flipped, head down, into the steps by the bus' front door. Dahl hollered to her to turn the key and kill the ignition.
Some witnesses said Eickstadt, who was killed, appeared to veer his truck to the left to give the bus room.
All 61 people on the bus avoided serious injury.
"There was indeed a silver lining in the form of a yellow school bus and that has been seen around the world," said Jeff Pearson, vice president of First Student bus company, where Dahl has worked for 10 years.
The bus company gave plaques and $5,000 checks on Wednesday to Dahl, Babineau, Hernandez and Graves, who remains at Hennepin County Medical Center after foot surgery and with other injuries, including broken vertebrae. After the ceremony, a handful of kids from the bus, including Dahl's, all dug into a cake decorated with the children's names.
"I don't consider myself a hero," Dahl said. "Anybody in the same situation would have done the same thing."
Mayor R.T. Rybak isn't so sure. In a letter read at the event, the mayor wrote: "Long after the media from around the world go home, our image of the bridge incident will focus on the First Student school bus and your bravery that day will inspire us always."
Dahl was the last one helped off the bus that day. She couldn't move and had a hard time convincing her kids, 10-year-old Arrianna and 5-year-old David, to get off the bus. They had joined the Waite House group, which requested Dahl drive its bus for a fourth consecutive summer.
"I pretty much had to scream to get my kids off the bus because they weren't leaving their Mom on the bus," Dahl said. "I told them: 'You're getting off. Whether you like it or not, you're leaving me.'"
She was reunited with her husband, David, and their 8-year-old, who skipped the field trip, about an hour later at Abbott Northwestern Hospital. She requested the ambulance driver take her there because that's where her sister works as a surgical technician.
Dahl returned home to Anoka three days after the collapse. She said Arrianna has been emotional in the two weeks since the collapse, while her youngest son talks about it constantly to help with his healing.
Doctors say Dahl can't return to her 10th year as a First Student driver until at least November because of her back injury. She wishes she would be back on her route in St. Anthony when school starts next month.
"The kids and parents will be on the corner waiting for me and I won't be there," she said. "Those kids are mine when they're on that bus. They have parents at home, but I'm their parent on the bus."
She said the whole ordeal has changed her outlook on life.
"It could have been way worse," Dahl said. "Everything is unpredictable in day-to-day life and that's why you can't take it for granted. Every day you put your feet on the floor is a good day."
She has thought often of Eickstadt and the other families that have lost loved ones.
"What happened was a freak accident," she said. "And nothing can ever take that day back."
Curt Brown 651-673-4767