Posted 8/30/16 (Tue)
By Cecile Wehrman
The deaths of a young father and two children in a traffic accident Tuesday evening last week cast a pall on a normally exuberant first day of school in Divide County.
On Wednesday morning, Aug. 24, small clusters of people gathered all around Crosby -- on the street or in businesses -- speaking in hushed tones about the deaths of Les Gunderson, 30, and two of his three children -- Shelly, age 8, and Shay’leigh, 2. A third child, Shelton, 4, was injured.
Les Gunderson is a lifelong Divide County resident with many extended family members in the area.
As details of the accident have come out, so too has an outpouring of support for the Gunderson family and for the third-graders who would have had Shelly as a classmate.
According to a release by the North Dakota Highway Patrol, a 2006 Ford Crown Victoria driven by Les Gunderson was stopped for highway construction by Mayo Construction flagger Anna McKeigan, about three miles east of Crosby at 6:25 p.m.
McKeigan, the patrol reports, was speaking to Les when an eastbound GMC Sierra driven by William Koehler, 49, of Chiefland, Fla., rear-ended the Gunderson car. Both vehicles overturned and entered the ditch. The Ford came to rest on the driver’s side, the GMC, on its roof.
According to the patrol, the girls died on the scene, while Les and his son were airlifted to Minot. Les passed away early in the morning, on Aug. 24. His 4-year-old son, the family told The Journal on Monday, was never in serious condition as was widely reported. He was released from the hospital the next day.
The driver of the Sierra was injured, but not transported. McKeigan was struck by debris but was not transported for treatment.
Classmates of Shelly Gunderson were met with a statement from the school district about Shelly Gunderson’s passing, when they arrived for the first day of class on Wednesday, said Divide County Superintendent Sherlock Hirning.
Principal Tanja Brown and Guidance Counselor Judy Harding also met with the classes and children were offered the chance to speak privately about their grief.
“It was certainly a somber beginning to the school year,” said Hirning. “It was probably as difficult for the staff to deal with and sort through for themselves,” as it was for the students.
“You try to be prepared, but you’re never really prepared,” he said. “Every situation is different.”
At St. Luke’s Medical Center, too, assistance was offered to staff and others close to the tragedy, in the form of a counselor who offered tips for dealing with trauma and grief.
The information was also shared with Crosby Area Chamber members.
“It is valuable information for anyone who may be grieving,” according to the hospital’s broadcast message, offering tips for understanding of how people handle grief (some tips printed, right).
Others in the community took action to provide financial assistance to the Gunderson family. Along with a number of online funds established to help Les’ wife, Briana, an account for her benefit has been established at First National Bank, P.O. Box L, Crosby, ND 58730.
Meanwhile, in Noonan, a hastily organized fish fry on Saturday generated “a pretty good little bit” said Tim Callahan, a two-year resident of Noonan who did not know the family well, but wanted to do something to help.
“I come from a small town, back home,” said Callahan, in Arkansas. “I just thought it would be a really good thing for the community to come together.”
Also, a pancake breakfast is planned 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Oct. 2, at Divide County High School to benefit Briana Gunderson and family.
In the days to come, some questions about the accident may come from the CDR download in at least one of the vehicles.
Sgt. Kevin Huston of the Highway Patrol’s Minot office said last week an accident reconstructionist was on the scene Wednesday and would be collecting that type of data.
“It’s the black box of the vehicles. Not every vehicle is capable of doing it,” but at least one of the vehicles involved does have that capability, potentially helping glean details like the speed at which Koehler’s pickup was traveling.
The Divide County State’s Attorney on Monday declined to comment on any pending charges.