A Choteau woman and her teenage daughter were critically injured in a two-vehicle collision Saturday morning on U.S. Highway 89 southeast of Fairfield.
As of Monday afternoon, Della Yeager, a junior high language arts tutor at Choteau Public Schools, and her daughter, Veronica Riphenburg, an eighth grader, remained hospitalized at Benefis in Great Falls.
Yeager was still in the intensive care unit Monday, but was hoping to be transferred to a regular room early this week. Her daughter remained in critical condition in ICU with a traumatic brain injury and other serious injuries. The third occupant of their vehicle, Choteau eighth-grader Logan Howard, was treated for minor injuries and released on Saturday.
Choteau Public Schools over the weekend and on Monday worked with shocked, saddened students and staff members to provide them accurate information about the accident and about Yeager’s and Riphenburg’s condition.
Choteau High School Principal Nate Achenbach on Monday said junior high English teacher Jennifer Birnel, in whose classroom Yeager worked with students every day, notified her students via facebook and text messages that she would be in her room all day on Sunday and invited students to gather and share their concerns.
Birnel helped students create a facebook page, “Praying for Veronica Riphenburg,” where they could go to post their prayers and get-well wishes and get accurate information.
Sunday evening, Achenbach met with elementary Principal Chuck Gameon, school counselors Shelly Johnson and Patsy Betcher, and Birnel to put together an action plan for the start of the school week. Achenbach said the team’s top concern was providing students with accurate information since flurries of rumors were swirling through the e-culture.
On Monday morning, Achenbach read staff members and students a prepared statement, authorized by Yeager. In that statement, Yeager said she sustained a broken pelvis, five broken ribs and a broken vertebrae. Doctors are also monitoring a bubble on one of her lungs and injuries to her spleen.
Her daughter was the most seriously injured in the accident. She sustained a traumatic brain injury and internal injuries. On Saturday, she underwent an eight-hour brain surgery. On Sunday, she went into a five-hour surgery on her badly broken legs and remains in ICU. “Veronica’s condition is very critical and she needs our prayers,” Yeager said in the statement.
Achenbach said he told junior high and high schools students that counselors Aaron Skaggs with Altacare and Lou Giles and Ann Verploegen with the Big Sky Special Needs Cooperative are available for students today and will still be available in the months to come for any student who needs someone to talk to about the accident.
He also told students that Yeager will be supplying the high school with accurate updates on their condition and instructed students to ask at the office for the updates.
Yeager worked as a high school language arts tutor last year and is well known and liked by students in both the junior high and high school. “She is very well loved,” Achenbach said of Yeager.
Achenbach said high school students in Sally Lee’s art room are making cards that will be available in the school library for students to sign. Junior high students in Birnel’s classes are also making cards.
Community and family members were working with Teton Banks-Choteau on Monday to establish an account to accept donations that the family can use to help with medical and other expenses. For more information on how to donate, community members can contact the bank at 466-5743.
School personnel are also forming a group to look into possible fundraisers to help the family. For more information on this effort, community members can contact Achenbach or high school secretary Michaela Zwerneman at the 466-5303 or high school tutor Emily Bouma at 590-8885.
The accident happened at about 11:30 a.m. on March 19 near the Teton-Cascade county line, according to Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Dana Cockrell, the investigating officer.
Yeager was eastbound, driving to Great Falls on U.S. Highway 89 in a mid-sized passenger car. Howard was sitting in the front seat, passenger side, and Riphenburg was in the back seat, behind the driver. All three were wearing their seat belts. While road conditions became snowy later that day, Cockrell said the weather was clear and the roads dry at the time of the accident.
The wreck occurred several miles south and east of Fairfield where Highway 431 (from the north) and Highway 565 (the Simms Cut-Across) on the south intersect with U.S. Highway 89. Access to Highway 89 is controlled on both the north and south sides by stop signs.
Cockrell said an Augusta man driving a full-sized pickup truck and pulling a horse trailer was southbound on Highway 431, intending to cross U.S. Highway 89 onto the Simms Cut-Across and travel to Augusta.
Cockrell said the driver of the pickup truck, who was also wearing his seat belt and was alone in the vehicle, failed to yield the right of way to Yeager’s passenger car. His pickup truck broadsided her vehicle in the intersection, smashing into the driver’s side. The front of the pickup truck locked onto the car and tore off the outside of the driver’s side, sheering away the seat belt connections for both Yeager and Riphenburg.
The force of the collision carried both vehicles through the intersection and Yeager’s car flipped and rolled, coming to rest on its roof on the south side of the highway on the Cascade County side. The pickup truck and horse trailer jack-knifed and came to rest on the Simms Cut Across.
Both Yeager and Riphenburg were ejected from the car when it rolled. Howard stayed inside the vehicle, safely restrained by his seat belt. In addition to scrapes and bruises, he sustained a cut on his wrist from glass but was not seriously injured. Yeager’s car was destroyed and the pickup truck disabled. The driver of the pickup truck also sustained minor, non-life-threatening injuries in the accident. All four accident victims were transported by ambulance to Benefis.
Cockrell said the accident remains under investigation and as of Sunday no citations had been issued. She said the preliminary investigation indicates alcohol was not a factor in the accident.
Teton County Sheriff Keith VanSetten said the county paged out the Choteau and Fairfield ambulance crews, the Fairfield and Simms volunteer fire departments, two deputies and the Fort Shaw Quick Response Unit. The deputies routed traffic around the accident until emergency responders had cleared from the scene.
VanSetten said this intersection has been the location of numerous accidents, including one that led to a fatality, over the years. While visibility is good at the intersection, he said, he would like to see the Montana Department of Transportation do a traffic safety study there and see whether additional elements could be added to improve the safety and reduce the risk for broad-side collisions that have resulted when north- or south-bound vehicles have failed to stop for the east-west traffic on U.S. Highway 89.