September 17, 2012 was a day of miraculous deliverance at Johnson Corners Christian Academy (JCCA) near Watford City, North Dakota. An out-of- control semi-truck careened off the highway outside and smashed into the school facility, causing significant damage. Students and staff were terrified, yet amazingly no one inside the school was killed or even seriously injured.
At the Johnson Corners intersection, the semi was traveling 63 mph when it hit a car that failed to yield, knocking the truck driver unconscious. The semi then “bunny hopped” a ditch, careened up an embankment, plowed through a chain-link fence and slammed into the school. It first hit a bus at an estimated 55 mph and then a student’s pickup truck before bursting through the building.
“It was like watching a video game as everything exploded,” reported Devin, a student. He stood up just before a large printer hit him in the midsection. Had he not stood, he might not have lived to tell the story.
Students raced for refuge to the chapel, where they realized that not everyone had made it out of their classroom. Three students were missing: Sandi, Lois and one of the senior guys. Sandi and Lois had been closest to the door where the semi had entered the room. Sandi remembers thinking as the bumper of the truck hit her, “This is going to hurt.” Both girls finally escaped, white with sheetrock dust. The senior boy had run around to check on the driver of the semi. He smashed a window in the cab and pulled out the driver, still unconscious.
At the time of the accident, sisters Josie and Shelly were sitting in the lunchroom. Olivia, a younger student, was outside on the playground tying her shoe before running off to play. Suddenly she jumped up with a horrified look on her face, giving the others a couple of seconds’ warning before the room exploded. Josie reported, “There was a whooshing sound.” Her chair went flying across the carpet as if on ice. She started screaming, not knowing why it was sliding so fast but realizing she had to quickly evacuate the room.
Meanwhile, Shelly’s chair was pushed into the table by a collapsing wall, pinning her. A friend pulled the wall off her and they ran to the chapel as the ceiling came down. She remembers having to jump over a lot of debris.
No One did what they usually do that day.
Barbara Henderson, longtime staff member and the mother of Josie and Shelly, recalled: “No one did what they usually do that day.” Principal Timmons usually takes phone calls or has a one-on-one study course with a student during that time in his office. It was his empty office that was hit first. Another teacher who usually goes to her room to make phone calls decided she was hungry and left her room. It was demolished. Henderson’s daughter, who usually carries her books to the classroom before lunch, decided not to that day. That classroom also was destroyed.
The bus was not usually parked in the spot where it was struck by the truck. The pickup was never parked in that location or direction. Both slowed the momentum of the semi and changed its direction before it slammed into the school, thereby saving all the children’s lives. With the pickup in front of the semi, the wall was pushed inward from the bottom first instead of collapsing onto the children from the top, allowing for escape. Even the boy in the bathroom made it out as the semi plowed 60 feet into the school—destroying the principal’s office, three classrooms, the lunchroom and the boys’ bathroom. Henderson later told the 19 JCCA students (from five religious affiliations): “I think God has a great work for each one of you. You are going to be witnesses and testify to family and friends because of what happened here.” She also asked Hannah, driver of the pickup, why she had parked where she did that day. Hannah replied, “I never park facing east. I never do that!” Barbara assured her, “God had a plan. He needed you to do that.”
And the whooshing sound? The students believe it was the sound of angels’ wings.
Author Jacquie Biloff is communication director for the Dakota Conference.