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Article on good reason NOT to use cheaper parts

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Bus crash blamed on modified brakes
Equipment used on 7 buses made for another make of vehicle, State Patrol probe shows
BY DAVE ORRICK
Pioneer Press
TwinCities.com-Pioneer Press
Article Last Updated:03/29/2007 12:24:23 AM CDT

Brake failure.

That's what caused a school bus to crash Dec. 8 at a busy intersection in northern Anoka County, sending 18 children to the hospital and putting one woman in a coma, state investigators said Wednesday night.

It wasn't a defect; it was the bus company mechanics, they said, though they avoided using the word "fault."

In September, three months before the crash, mechanics at Kottkes Bus Service in Andover swapped out an old part of the brake system with a new one that wasn't designed to be in that bus, but cost half as much.

The swap, which is not recommended by the brake manufacturer, was done in a way that compromised the assembly that connected the brake pedal to a power-assist booster. That assembly essentially came apart, Minnesota State Patrol investigators said.

No charges have been filed, and it's unclear if any will be.

The end result was that bus driver Seth Withers had no chance to stop the bus just before 9 a.m. as it headed northbound on Minnesota 65 in Ham Lake, carrying 41 students to McKinley Elementary School, just blocks away. Withers, 21, had said from the start his brakes failed.

In the McKinley gymnasium Wednesday evening, State Patrol investigators released the findings of their investigation to dozens of parents of children in the school. They weren't happy with much of what the investigators revealed.

Investigators said Kottkes started making the modifications - a procedure they said they improvised themselves - in 2005 because of a shortage of available parts. Investigators could not confirm that a shortage existed at that time, but they determined there was no such shortage last fall.

Several parents asked why the bus company continued doing the modification in September, if there was no shortage of parts then.

"There is a cost savings involved," responded Sgt. Paul Davis of the State Patrol's Commercial Services Division.

His response sent a moan through the audience. Davis explained that the modification allowed Kottkes to use a brake booster that cost about $325, as opposed to one that cost about $700.

Kottkes had made the same modification to six other buses. Those buses were taken off the road, and the modifications were essentially undone. Only Kottkes had done the modification, Davis said, noting that the discovery of the problem led to a statewide alert last month.

No one from Kottkes was at the meeting. Since the crash, company officials have not responded to Pioneer Press phone calls seeking comment.

"I'm infuriated they'd do this to save a few hundred bucks," said Brad Palmer, whose two daughters were suffered minor injuries in the crash.

Anoka-Hennepin School District officials learned the same information Wednesday evening. Transportation director Chuck Holden and several school board members said they would discuss how to respond to the findings.

"We're learning tonight," he told the audience.

According to the State Patrol, here's the tale of the brake modifications:

The issue surrounds the Robert Bosch LLC-made Hydro-Max II, a hydraulic power-assist booster that is the first component in the brake system after the driver's pedal.

Beginning in 2005, Kottkes began swapping out worn-out Hydro-Max II units on their GMC buses with cheaper ones intended for commercial vehicles made by International. The boosters are identical, except for a rod that connects the pedal to the Hydro-Max II. Kottkes' mechanics got the idea to switch pedal rods, keeping the old one in place. State Patrol Capt. Ken Urquhart said he asked Kottkes' head mechanic how he got that idea, since it's not recommended by Bosch, which discourages mixing of "non-like" parts.

"His exact words were 'trial and error,' " Urquhart said.

Pulling out the pedal rod, which is secured by a rubber grommet, takes 500 pounds of force, Davis said, noting that if the rod did come loose, the brakes wouldn't work.

"They don't want it to come out," he said of Bosch. Kottkes mechanics took a pry bar and forced it off. Then they fastened it to the Hydro-Max II made for International trucks. Instead of the rubber grommet, they used a pair of plastic clips designed for the Hydro-Max I, which was made for buses from 1996 and older. The bus that crashed was a 1999 model.

A dent in the housing of the bus that crashed proves that the pedal rod came loose. When Withers stomped on the brakes, the rod was banging into the housing, not pushing brake fluid.

No plastic clips, nor the rubber grommet, were found.

Parent Brad Palmer's wife, Dana, said it was a "difficult winter" for their children, who at first were hesitant to get back on a school bus. She said gradually they've become more comfortable, but her own confidence was shaken Wednesday night.

When asked whether she was confident the buses were safe, she responded, "I was, but I'm not sure now."

The wreck critically injured Tammy Weber, 38, of Ham Lake. Weber remains in a rehabilitative care center and this month began speaking her first words since the crash.

Mary Bauer contributed to this report. Dave Orrick can be reached at dorrick@pioneer press.com or 651-228-2171.

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