Chippewa Herald * January 16, 2006

Bus crash web page preserves memories of October week

by Tom Arneberg, Community Columnist

It's been three months today since "The Crash." It seems so long ago.

I've noticed that every newspaper story covering it -- including the "Story of the Year" at the Chippewa Herald and other area newspapers -- has to recap the events when they talk about it.

But as a "Community Columnist," I think it's safe to assume that everyone around here knows what The Crash is, without further explanation.

It was a life-changing event for Chippewa Falls.

Over the past three months, many people have asked me questions about my web site that summarizes the aftermath of The Crash, so I thought I'd write about the web page in this column.

I've been designing web pages for twelve years now. I've never done it as a profession -- which is a good thing, since I've never been trained. I just use my love of computers and writing to whip up informal web pages for charitable groups that I'm associated with, such as Boy Scouts, church, school, singing groups, etc.

In that twelve years, I've developed a curiosity about what makes people read a web page. The home page for our church has seen about 14,000 visitors ("hits") in the last three years. On a larger scale, the web page I designed for our barbershop harmony district (five states and two provinces) has had about 30,000 hits in the the same time. That was the most internet traffic I had ever seen for a web page of mine.

Until The Crash, that is.

I started that web site about 5:00 a.m. Sunday morning, three hours after the accident. My wife and I were very fortunate in that we didn't hear about it first and then wonder if our son was okay.

Thankfully, the first word we heard about The Crash was when Ben called from a cell phone on bus #3 at about 4:00 a.m. He told us they were stuck on the highway because of some accident up ahead. He just wanted to let us know he'd be a couple hours late, and said we should go back to sleep.

We tried that, but the phone rang again. This time it was a fellow band dad. His voice was somber: "Tom, turn on the radio. There are fatalities."

That was our first inkling that this was going to be very serious.

I couldn't find any word about it from Internet searches. Our only links to news were fellow band parents on the telephone, and an occasional update via the radio.

At about 5:15 a.m., after learning through the grapevine that all the kids from our church were okay, I sent out an email to the 280 people on our church's email list. Later I sent an email to another 250 people on the list for CFMA (Chippewa Falls Music Association).

Email updates are fine, for those who are on the list. But I realized that what we really needed was a central repository of information about The Crash, a source that anyone could go to at any time. I wanted the information to be very current, but I refrained from printing facts until they were confirmed by parents or school authorities.

I was surprised to see 500 hits by the time I went to bed Sunday night -- and even more so to see the hits DOUBLE to 1000 by Monday morning!

That's when I knew that this crash web page had a lot of people relying on it, and I'd better keep it updated.

By Monday, I began to get updates directly from parents of injured students, as well as information about the wakes and funerals.

Once I learned how to start an online guestbook from Cassie Gast's example, I created one for each person injured or killed. That was a great relief to me, as I was getting overwhelmed with manual updates. It also opened up a therapeutic new avenue to allow everyone to share their grief and memories.

I had taken hundreds of photos of the marching band, some of which started showing up in local newspapers and TV stations, and even nationwide on CNN and MSNBC. Because of that, I was getting notes from marching bands all over the country.

But the emails that had the most impact on me were the ones from Greenhalgh's far-flung disciples. It was the messages from heartbroken Chi-Hi alumni who couldn't make it back that week that persuaded me to take a few photos of the wake and funeral.

That October week will be forever seared in our collective memory. I have never seen a town pull together like it did. Everyone did whatever they could, and I was just glad that I could do something to help.

I still can't believe the number of hits on the web site. It took three YEARS to build up 30,000 hits on my barbershop district page. But the hit count for The Crash web page passed 40,000 in only two WEEKS!

At the CFMA meeting last Tuesday, I promised to keep that web page up as long as I am alive, Lord willing. After three months, The Crash no longer dominates our thoughts for most of us. But it's useful to check back in once in a while and remember the week when normal life was put on hold.


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