It was billed as a day 10 lucky Kansas State University fans would never forget, a chance to ride the Cat Tracker fan bus from Manhattan to Lawrence to watch the Wildcats take on the Jayhawks in the Sunflower Showdown on Nov. 18, 2006.
The package sold at an auction benefiting the Kansas State Athletic Department for $5,000, promising K-State fans a chance to “write your own chapter in the history of the infamous Cat Tracker.”
Participants had no idea how infamous that trip would become.
The day ended in tragedy, when, overloaded with 22 passengers — including six children ages 7 to 16 — the modified double-decker fan bus, heading north on Iowa Street on its way to the stadium, drove under the Irving Hill Road overpass with eight passengers standing on the upper deck. The Cat Tracker was designed to hold 14 passengers and a driver.
According to court documents, four passengers standing near the front railing of the upper deck ducked at the last second when they saw the bridge, which has a posted height of 15 feet. Police reports estimate the bus, which was captured on KU surveillance video, was traveling at speeds of up to 40 mph.
Those passengers standing at the back of the bus never saw the overpass coming.
Shawnee resident John Green, 27, was killed instantly.
Christian Orr, then 34, of Salina, suffered debilitating injuries when his head slammed into the bridge.
Another man escaped death or injury by fate; he had bent down to cup a cigar he was trying to light just as the bus approached the overpass.
Families of the two victims filed a civil lawsuit in Douglas County District Court in 2007, claiming the driver, the owners and operators of the Cat Tracker were negligent for allowing people to stand on the upper level when the bus was in motion.
Now, the case will finally go to trial.
A single defendant
Originally, nearly a dozen defendants were named, including Brent Simonsson, 41, the driver, who did not have a commercial driver’s license to operate the bus and, according to the lawsuit, was only allowed to drive a vehicle if it had an ignition interlock device in place.
Other defendants included Cat Tracker owners Robert Pottroff and Larry McBee and McBee’s business, Kat Tracker Promos LLC, as well as about a half-dozen individuals referred to as the “Cat Tracker Crew,” a group that owned, operated and financed the bus’ trips across the country to support the K-State football team.
In the more than three and a half years since the accident, nearly all of the defendants have settled out of court for undisclosed amounts or have been dismissed from the lawsuit. The settlements remain sealed as part of the court file.
One defendant remains: Russell Briggs and Briggs Auto Group of Manhattan.
Court records show that Briggs Auto Group purchased a yellow school bus in August 2003 and converted it into the Cat Tracker, retaining ownership of the fan bus until transferring it to Pottroff and McBee in February 2005.
The lawsuit states Briggs owned the Cat Tracker at the time it was “negligently modified, participated in such modifications and subsequently transferred ownership of the vehicle in a dangerous and defective condition, knowing what its intended use was going to be.”
Briggs Auto Group also serviced and inspected the vehicle on June 15, 2005.
The bus contained no signs warning passengers not to enter the upper deck while the bus was traveling, according to the suit. There were no chains or barricades and passengers were not given any verbal warnings. The lawsuit also claims that on previous trips the ladder to the upper deck had been removed. It was still in place on the date of the accident, allowing passengers access to the upper deck.
“The defendants are all well aware, the Cat Tracker was defectively designed and unsafe and lacked the most basic guards, barricades and warnings to render it safe,” the lawsuit states.
Several attorneys involved in the lawsuit would not comment on the case.
Jury selection begins this morning.