Tragedy hits new school year
Tragedy has marred the new school year in Blooming Prairie just days after school began as a third grader was killed in a car crash on her way to classes.
Emerson Harberts, 8, of Dodge Center died instantly in the vehicle driven by her mother Friday morning along a stretch of roadway in Dodge County that has become infamously known as the Highway of Horrors for the past 25 years. Rachel Marie Harberts, 43, and her son Jaxon, 12, are clinging to life at St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester.
Rachel is a teacher in the Blooming Prairie School District where she has taught for the past 16 years. She started out as a Title I teacher for three years before taking over first grade where she has been for the past 13 years.
Counseling is being offered at both schools for as long as needed, according to Barry Olson, superintendent of BP Schools.
The horrifying chain of events began unfolding around 7:12 a.m. Friday as Rachel was on her way to Blooming Prairie for school where her two children attend. Rachel was driving a 2010 Mercury Milan on U.S. Highway 14 when she was attempting to make a left hand turn onto County Road 3 on the east edge of Claremont. The Harberts vehicle was stopped in the roadway presumably yielding to on-coming traffic in the section of two-lane highway that has been a political battleground for decades.
The State Patrol said a 2008 Hummer H3 driven by Tanner Ronald Kruckeberg, 24, of Dodge Center, rear-ended the Harberts vehicle. The impact launched the Harberts vehicle several hundred feet ahead into the opposing lane of traffic.
Two air ambulances—one from North Memorial and the other from Mayo—landed on the roadway. Rachel and Jaxon were airlifted from the scene to St. Mary’s Hospital with life-threatening injuries, according to the patrol. Kruckeberg had no apparent injuries.
All persons involved in the crash were wearing their seat belts and no alcohol was suspected in either driver, the patrol said.
The State Patrol is reconstructing the crash and will be doing a full investigation, which could take several months to complete.
While it’s unknown what led up to the crash last week, state court records indicate Kruckeberg has an extensive driving record. During the past eight years since he obtained a driver’s license, Kruckeberg has been issued nine speeding citations, four seat belt violations, four driving after suspension violations and one use of wireless communications device violation, state records show. Of the speeding violations, three of them were for traveling at least 14 mph over the speed limit, including one for going 79 in a 55 mph zone in 2011, according to the state.
Assisting the State Patrol at the scene were Dodge County Sheriff’s Office, Dodge Center Fire, Dodge Center Ambulance, Gold Cross Ambulance and the medical helicopters.
Sheriff Scott Rose said the crash scene was especially difficult for some of his deputies who have worked other fatalities along Highway 14 in the past, including the death of Scott Hodgman in 2014 just miles down the road.
A teacher biography page on the BP Schools website quotes Rachel Harberts as saying, “I have a love for teaching and learning with all my students.”
Harberts grew up in Lanesboro. She attended Rochester Community and Technical College for two years earning an associate degree in nursing.
Her career path changed, and she headed back to school at Winona State University where she earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education.
She and her husband Brandon were married in 1999. Her biography on the school’s website says they “had a Mickey Mouse wedding because I love Mickey Mouse.”
Support for family
A GoFundMe campaign has been established to help the Harberts family with funeral and medical expenses. As of early Monday, $25,401 of the $50,000 goal had been achieved through pledges. Anyone wishing to contribute can do so at www.gofundme.com/rachel-and-jaxon-harberts.
The family has also set up a caringbridge site to keep people updated on Jaxon and Rachel’s conditions. The site can be accessed at caringbridge.org.
On Sunday, the family posted that Rachel had a “low key day.” After having an MRI, they found she had broken ligaments in her neck and a broken nose and a disc that is putting pressure on her spine. They have chosen not to do surgery at this time.
Meanwhile, Jaxon has “a great day,” according to a caringbridge post. He has a torn ligament on his C-spine but at this time they don’t think they will do surgery. They were able to “wake him up” a little on Sunday, and he was moving all around and at one point in the night he opened one eye.
“They are both strong fighters,” family posted. “Thanks everyone for the thoughts and prayers. I know everyone needs the support.”
Since the mid-1980s, more than 145 people have been killed on Highway 14, which winds through 265 miles of farmland from Winona to the South Dakota border. State records show about 75 percent of the deaths between 2000 and 2005 occurred on the two-lane stretches.
Two sections remain two-lane: Dodge Center to Owatonna—the stretch of last week’s fatality—and New Ulm to North Mankato. For years, people have referred to the highway as a “death trap.”
There are no turn lanes or passing lanes at the intersection where last week’s fatal crash took place.
Just this past May, state lawmakers finally approved funding to widen the Dodge Center to Owatonna stretch. However, bids won't be let out until next March with construction possibly beginning later in 2019. So the roadway won’t be completed for at least another year and a half.