Verne Brown is still repairing damage from the crash that claimed his left leg 18 months ago.
Brown was driving for Unique Bus Charters, with 49 Kenai Peninsula Borough School District skiers and coaches on board, when it collided with a Department of Transportation semi-truck towing a trailer on January 10, 2014 on a remote stretch of the Richardson Highway.
The group had been travelling to Valdez for a cross-country ski meet. It was lightly snowing and windy and visibility played a role in the accident, according to an Alaska State Troopers report from the incident. But, Brown laughed when asked if he had taken the same stretch in similar conditions.
“I have been driving commercially in Alaska for 15 years,” Brown said. “It was a standard route.”
The two vehicles were crawling up the highway nearing mile 55, which is near the summit. The DOT truck’s cab had a light on it, but “that’s 50 feet from the end of the trailer,” Brown said. The back wheels kicked up clouds of snow the entire way, obscuring its own taillights, he said.
“Whenever we would go around a curve, I would make sure I had enough following distance behind him, in fact I doubled it,” Brown said. “The state says four seconds; for commercial vehicles four seconds following distance. The school district said six seconds. I went to 12 (seconds) because of the conditions.”
The truck slowed down to pull over to the left side of the road. Brown banked sharply.
“I couldn’t see him until I was right there,” Brown said. “All I had a chance to do was crank the wheel hard to the right, and hit the brake. I caught the right hand tail of his trailer with the left hand front of my bus.”
The area was so remote, it took Alaska State Troopers nearly an hour to reach the scene of the wreck, said Kenai Peninsula Borough spokesperson Pegge Erkeneff, just after the crash. Details were few and far between as the area is out of cell phone range.
But, as reports trickled back to parents and the school district — it became clear that Brown’s injuries were the most severe.
Brown’s leg became wrapped under the steering shaft. He was pinned under the steering wheel for nearly an hour and a half, and didn’t lose conscious at any point.
“I guess the ankle, the lower leg, and the knee were all crunched,” Brown said pointing to the spot on his prosthetic where his knee used to be. “What really caused some them not to try to save the leg was the blood vessels. They were all tore up. The doctors said the blood vessels looked like they exploded so I lost the leg above the knee.”
The driver of the semi-truck and one student were taken to the hospital from the scene of the accident.
The mid-morning accident was the first injury-crash that Unique Bus Charters had in 15 years, said owner Mike Baxter.
Brown has been working as a bus driver for 15 years.
He had a 25-year career in the oilfield before he took a brief retirement, which “was not all it’s cracked up to be.” After going a little stir crazy, he applied to for a bus driver position.
It was a good excuse to get his commercial driver license and Brown ended up working for a friend, Mike Baxter, at Unique Bus Charters.
Baxter owns the Kenai-based company, which often is contracted by the school district for transportation to and from sports events.
“There’s no better,” Baxter said of Brown. “We sure miss him as far as that part, we miss him terribly any way, but as far as an employee it’s going to be a long time before anybody could do what he did.”
Brown has gone back to work for Baxter as an attendant from time to time since the crash. He is still waiting for clearance from his doctors to drive again.
“I told him (Baxter) that probably won’t happen any time soon,” Brown said with a laugh.
Now Brown walks with a cane, and is supported by a $50,000 prosthetic leg. He always carries a spare battery that operates the basic movements, such as bending and straightening.
“I refuse to admit that I am handicapped,” Brown said. “The only time I admit I am handicapped is when I go to the grocery store and I want to pull up close to the store. I hang that little tag up in my rearview.”
Hiking is next to impossible, but Brown still gets out for long drives around the Kenai Peninsula with his wife.
“It’s amazing how many things you realize are a lot more difficult now,” Brown. “Somebody said ‘well can you still do everything?’ I said ‘I can still do everything I used to do, its just sometimes I have to figure out a new way to do it’.”
Baxter said Brown has handled the situation as best as any one could.
Baxter called the situation a “freak accident.” In the months following the accident, the company went through training on driving in bad weather and the issues that could come with it. Drivers refreshed themselves and each other on safe practices for operating under adverse conditions.
The state troopers investigated Brown’s role in the accident. He was found to be not at fault.
From time to time Brown will run into some of the students that were on the bus that day. He said they often thank him for taking the brunt of the crash, and believe he acted heroically.
Brown said however, that wasn’t on his mind at the time, and he was simply reacting to the situation.
“Everyone was scrambling to try to figure out what happened. There was a lot of bumps and bruises but I was the only one that was admitted. There were 49 people on board and I was the only one that got hurt. I would say that’s a good record,” Brown said.
“I am ready to put this behind me. That was now and where do we go from here.”