Victim of Deadly Bus Crash Was Longtime School Volunteer

Charlie Crabtree, 72, was a former bus driver for the McLean County school district who "had a special way of connecting with students," the Normal Community West High School principal said

One of the people killed in a central Illinois bus crash involving a semi-truck and school bus was a longtime volunteer for the school district, officials said, returning home from a game with the girls basketball team when the crash took place.

Charlie Crabtree, 72, of Normal, Illinois, was one of two people killed in the crash that took place at around 8:32 p.m. on I-74 near Downs in McLean County, roughly 10 miles southeast of Bloomington.

A semi-truck was traveling the wrong way in the westbound lanes of I-74 when it struck the school bus head-on, according to Illinois State Police.

The bus was carrying 11 people - eight girls on the Normal Community West High School junior varsity basketball team, plus the driver, the team's coach and Crabtree, all on their way back from a game in Champaign.

"Charlie was a former bus driver for Unit 5 for many years and just had a special way of connecting with students," Normal Community West High School principal Dave Johnson said, with tears in his eyes at a news conference Thursday morning.

"As a bus driver, I think he always liked to take those extra routes that were in the evening with sporting teams," Johnson continued. "He would drive coaches nuts some times because he would do all the extra things like bringing candy and doing things that the coaches might not have had in their plan, but certainly the students appreciated what he did."

"Personally he followed my daughter's career and my son's career in athletics and he's just, he's a very caring person," Johnson added. "Everybody knew Charlie. He's a very special person."

Crabtree worked as a computer operations manager at COUNTRY financial insurance for nearly 36 years before retiring in 2003, a spokesman for the company said in a statement. 

""He will be remembered by his colleagues as a kind and cheerful giver who strongly believed in volunteerism," the company's spokesman said. "Our hearts go out to his family, friends and all who knew him."

The eight students on the bus were taken to area hospitals for treatment of injuries that were not thought to be life-threatening, authorities said. At least five of the girls were treated and released to recover at home by Thursday morning, Johnson said.

One of the two other adult men on the bus was the team's coach Steve Price, who was airlifted to St. Francis Hospital with "multiple broken bones that will require surgery," school officials said, adding that he was "on the path to a full recovery."

The driver of the semi-truck, a 34-year-old man from Iowa, was also killed in the crash, ISP said. Further details on his identity were not immediately available.

Information on the identity or condition of the bus driver, who was also airlifted to St. Francis, was not immediately available.

Video of the scene showed the severity of the crash, with the front portion of the bus' roof appearing to have peeled back from the impact.

"As you look at the photos and the footage of the accident, it appears as though the front of the bus doesn't exist three rows forward so that's why that impact must have been substantial," District Supt. Mark Daniel said.

"I would say from looking at the condition of that bus, we probably witnessed a miracle," he added.

The school had a girls basketball game scheduled to take place Thursday night, Johnson said, revealing that the team members told their coach they wanted to play. The junior varsity game was canceled, but the varsity match would take place as scheduled - with Johnson anticipating a moment of silence in Crabtree's honor.

"I know at this time there's lots of emotion, lots of ideas flowing and when we get back to normal here at Normal West, I'm sure we'll have something here to remember Charlie by," Johnson said.

The cause of the crash, and why the semi was going in the wrong direction, remained under investigation, ISP said.

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