• Thu August 04 2005
  • Posted Aug 4, 2005
By JENNIFER JACOBS REGISTER STAFF WRITER August 4, 2005 The woman who was tossed through the windshield of a runaway team bus on the last day of RAGBRAI has recovered enough from a serious brain injury that she has opened her eyes and is talking, her family said Wednesday. Brandi Helmkamp, 30, also is now breathing on her own. But authorities Wednesday still were investigating why the brakes failed on the Team Wheel bus, which crashed and burst into flames about 9 a.m. Saturday while two occupants were traveling down a steep hill into Guttenberg, the ending point of the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. Those involved - from Team Wheel's bus driver to bicyclists and locals who came to the rescue - said they were impressed by the bravery they witnessed at the scene, including several RAGBRAI folks who poured beer on the flames. "I was extremely shaky, and I'm still a little shaky. I've never been though anything like that," said Alex Lawson, 19, a Team Navy crew member who helped free the bus driver from the wreckage. It was Ronald "Mike" Laing's first day driving the bus for Team Wheel, a team named by Laing's co-workers at Midwest Wheel in Des Moines. Laing, 40, volunteered after the team's original driver had to go home Friday for a family obligation. After the bicyclists rolled out of West Union at 7:15 a.m. Saturday, Laing filled up the bus' fuel tank and headed for Guttenberg with Helmkamp, whose boyfriend is a Team Wheel member. At the big hill, Laing said, he slowed to 30 mph and downshifted to third gear. "I thought at the time I was being overly cautious," he said. At 40 mph, he feathered the brakes. Nothing. "I pumped it up and down and then I slammed it all the way to the ground and it did absolutely nothing," Laing said. "I couldn't believe it." He threw on the emergency brake. Nothing. Laing tried to shift into second gear. "I'm not experienced enough driving a bus to know if it would even be possible, but it was just grinding," he said. Helmkamp shouted something from a passenger seat. Laing said, "It got to be a pretty traumatic thing, because we knew something bad was going to happen." The bus reached speeds of 70 to 75 mph, according to Guttenberg police. Faced with a row of vehicles stopped at U.S. Highway 52, Laing swerved into the oncoming traffic lane. Police Sgt. Jerry Moser said: "He finagled his way through that intersection without striking anyone whatsoever. He's the one I think who's the hero here." Laing honked a couple times, then braced himself. The bus jumped the curb, went airborne for about 20 feet, violently hit some railroad tracks, then came to rest on its side. Helmkamp was ejected through the windshield. She landed about 10 feet away - on soft ground in tall grass, said Shirley Bebber, who was ringing up sales at the 1111 Butcher Shop on U.S. 52 when her boss shouted for someone to call 911. Bebber grabbed a fire extinguisher and ran. She saw Laing, trapped, then Helmkamp, lying motionless. She started talking to Helmkamp and didn't stop until paramedics got there. "I said, 'Help's on the way. Your family loves you. You need to stick with us. You're going to be OK,' " Bebber said. Meanwhile, three members of Team Navy who were stopped in traffic at the bottom of the hill saw the bus zoom past, then plumes of black smoke. The men - David Kline, who is stationed at an Oklahoma Air Force base; Eric Cooper, who is assigned to a Naval Reserve center in Kentucky; and Alex Lawson, son of a retired chief petty officer from Kentucky - hurried to the crash site, picking up debris along the way in case they needed to break windows to free passengers. Fire the size of a small bonfire was shooting from the bus, near the fuel tank. "There were two or three people pouring beer on it," Lawson said. Laing was able to tell the rescuers that no one else was on the bus and that his right leg was pinned under the steering column. But he was so dazed he couldn't tell them his name. While a man discharged a fire extinguisher, Lawson wrestled with the wreckage until he could pull Laing loose. The fire spread quickly. People were petrified the bus would explode, Bebber said. "They were shouting, 'You need to get out of here, leave her be,' " Bebber said. "I couldn't imagine leaving her." Someone brought wet towels to cover Helmkamp's head and legs. Kline checked on Helmkamp, keeping his back to the flames, taking the brunt of the heat until Helmkamp could be lifted onto a spinal board. Cooper, a Navy equipment operator who was trained in firefighting, helped with the fire hoses. At one point, the hose tugged away from them - the Guttenberg Fire Department pumper truck had jumped into gear, rolled some distance and rammed the front bumper of an ambulance. "We're not really sure what happened there," Assistant Fire Chief Michael Radl said. All the firefighters were outside the pumper, he said. The incident caused at least $8,000 in damage, said Robin Esmann, administrative director for Guttenberg Ambulance Service. Both vehicles are being repaired. Laing needed seven stitches for the gash above his right eye, four stitches on his nose and five or six on his right leg. Otherwise, he's just bruised and sore, he said. "Overall, I'm very lucky and very lucky they were able to get to me," he said. Helmkamp, a payroll clerk with Heritage Payroll Services in Des Moines who rode RAGBRAI last year, is improving daily, said her mother, Theresa Helmkamp of Fort Dodge. She is breathing on her own, and her brain pressure has returned to normal. She also is recovering from a serrated liver, one broken rib, and broken facial bones. "She's gotten a really good response from different teams that knew her," Theresa Helmkamp said. "We're hearing from people we don't know."

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