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Woonsocket students thank Gov. Noem, SDDOT and Transportation Commission after three died

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Four buses of students rode from Woonsocket to Pierre Wednesday to talk heart to heart to state officials and to help themselves heal.

Their thanks went to Governor Kristi Noem, for her office ordering changes at a rural intersection, and to state highway workers who quickly made that happen.

There’s now a four-way stop at the place where three of their Woonsocket classmates died.

Two other people were hurt in the three-vehicle collision September 14.

South Dakota Department of Transportation crews finished the work Monday at the intersection of State Highway 34 and State Highway 37.

Up went stop signs, with flashing red lights, on Highway 34 that runs east and west.

Also now in place are advanced warning signs, rumble strips and painted stop bars.

Killed at the crash scene that Saturday night were Jordan Klich, 15; Kristian Kesary, 14; and Dylan Klich, 14. The driver of the car, Coen Harvey, 14, was taken to the Mitchell hospital. All four were from Woonsocket.

The 2000 Oldsmobile Alero was heading east on SD 34 and preparing to turn onto SD 37. Their vehicle collided with a 2005 Chevrolet Trailblazer that was westbound on Highway 34.

According to the South Dakota Highway Patrol, the Alero then spun and collided with a 2011 Chevrolet Impala that was stopped on SD 37.

Cynthia Peterson, 46, of Mitchell, was driving the Trailblazer. She was taken to the Mitchell hospital too with injuries.

The driver of the stopped Impala, Abel Hernandez, 35, and the passenger, Ana Hernandez, 35, both of Huron, weren’t hurt.

All wore seat belts.

Rod Weber is K-12 principal and superintendent. He brought about 125 students from grades seven through 12 to the state Transportation Commission meeting Wednesday.

Students talked to commissioners about what happened, the losses felt and the steps they’ve seen happen. Video from inside the meeting room was streamed to other students, faculty and parents in the lobby area.

One who took part in the presentation was student council president Megan Linke.

She said in an interview afterward the morning was emotional from the start: “But we knew this was something we had to do — something that was very important to us personally, each one of us.”

She talked about the funerals for the three. She said superintendent Weber brought the students together one week ago to set up the school gym.

“He explained that it is part of the whole healing processm and I completely agree with him,” Linke said. “I think it’s important for us to all stick together in a time like this. And it was definitely one of the hardest times of my life I think having to –“

She paused and turned to hug another student. She turned back to the TV camera and said she had a final point.

“We also just want to say one last huge thank you to the Department of Transportation and Kristi Noem and everybody that was able to come up here and help us and was willing to listen to our story,” she said.

One of the state commissioners, Mike Vehle of Mitchell, previously represented some of the neighboring counties in the Legislature.

“I felt sick — three young people,” Vehle said about his reaction when he first heard about the crash. “Had a similar accident when I was in high school in Chamberlain, and it’s devastating.”

He was a long-time member of the transportation committees while a state lawmaker.

“Anytime you try and work with traffic that’s stopping and turning in front of other traffic, it’s difficult to come up with good, pure, good solutions. But hopefully, if we can get the people that are going seventy mile an hour to stop at that intersection, and other people that are coming at sixty-five thinking they’re going to go up to seventy after this intersection, they have to stop there,” Vehle said.

“And that’s why I think it’s real important that you know wherever you’re at, wherever you’re driving, you’ve got to keep your eyes on the road, because the signs will tell you.

“And as we discussed today, they’re putting up signs that there’s a stop ahead, so people will know that there is a stop here now, where there hasn’t been one before. And hopefully that, in time, that will have — the people in the area will get used to that stop sign being there, we will slow down, it’ll prevent any accidents like this ever happening again,” Vehle said.

Transportation Secretary Darin Bergquist said the department gets notified any time there’s a highway fatality in South Dakota regardless where it occurs.

“So we had notice of the accident very shortly after it occurred. In the days following that, I had conversations with governor’s office staff about what happened and what changes we could implement at that location to try to help prevent anything further in the future from happening,” Bergquist said.

“After that conversation, department staff put together a proposed plan, and that was presented to the governor’s office staff before implementation. And Monday of this week, we started putting the changes into place,” Bergquist said.

“We’ve added two stop signs, east- and westbound, to turn this into a four-way stop condition. Those stop signs are the newer design. They have flashing LED borders on them.”

He said flashing yellow advanced warning signs were added too. “We installed rumble strips as another means to get drivers to recognize there’s a stop ahead. And some stop bars as well were painted in.”

At the end, state commissioner Ron Rosenboom of Sturgis told the students, “You did a good job.”