Student gets frostbite after getting off at wrong bus stop

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS and TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: February 12, 2008 - 11:39 PM

A 13-year-old girl who has been in St. Paul just four months wandered in the cold for three hours.

The temperature hovered near 6 degrees Monday evening when Kai Thao, exhausted and frightened, her toes frostbitten inside a pair of flimsy sneakers, collapsed on a St. Paul street corner, sobbing.

After getting off her bus at the wrong stop, the 13-year-old student at Humboldt Junior High School, who just four months before had arrived in St. Paul from Vietnam and spoke no English, had wandered for three hours in the brutally cold night in search of her home before she was rescued by a good Samaritan and taken home after she showed him her address scribbled on a slip of paper.

After her parents called police, who saw that her toes were blue with cold, she was rushed to Regions Hospital and treated for severe frostbite.

On Tuesday night, she was in good condition in the hospital's burn unit, and was not expected to lose any toes.

St. Paul public schools are investigating exactly what happened to Kai, but a friend of her family said Tuesday that cultural and language differences played a large factor in her disorientation and fear about asking for help.

"She said she was very scared," said Maly Vang of Lake Elmo, who assisted in bringing the family to St. Paul through her church and has served as an interpreter for them.

"Her father asked her, 'How come you didn't knock on people's doors and ask for help?'" Vang said. "She said, 'I'm scared that if I knock on their door they might take me in and I'd never come out again.'"

Such fears are understandable, Vang said. Kai, her parents and five siblings were persecuted as Christians in Vietnam and spent a year in a Thai jail before their arrival in this country.

Kai, who is in Humboldt's extended day program, had taken a later bus home from school Monday after her after-school classes, officials said. The bus left Humboldt about 4:45 p.m.

Kai's stop -- Edmund Avenue and Victoria Street in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood -- is the third stop from the end for this route.

"To the best of our knowledge, the student knew what was the bus stop," said Denise Quinlan, executive director of middle grades for the St. Paul schools.

Kai approached the bus driver at the last stop of the route and showed the driver a piece of paper. What was on that paper still is being investigated, Quinlan said.

The girl was dropped off about 3 1/2 blocks from her home about 5:15 or 5:20 p.m.

Vang said that her address was on that slip of paper and that she should have been taken near it. The misunderstanding highlights the need for cultural sensitivity in the district's bus drivers, she said.

Kai's father, Chai Tong Thao, wanted to thank a jogger known only as "Rocky" who had brought his daughter home, saying through interpreter Vang, "He's like an angel."

"Our hearts do go out to this young lady for any fear or confusion that was in her heart at the time," Quinlan said. "We're praying for her speedy recovery."

The bus is operated by First Student. Quinlan said that, to her knowledge, the driver is still driving and has a long work record with First Student.

Monday was the first day of the extended day program, but Kai had attended the school since November. • 612-673-4921 • 612-673-7768

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