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Northland family survives harrowing crash

Janel Olesiak got a call she never wanted but will always remember last Saturday. On the other end of the line was her 19-year-old daughter, Mikayla, phoning to say everybody was alive but there'd been a crash and that Janel needed to get to the ...

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Janel Olesiak got a call she never wanted but will always remember last Saturday.

On the other end of the line was her 19-year-old daughter, Mikayla, phoning to say everybody was alive but there’d been a crash and that Janel needed to get to the bridge over the St. Louis River on U.S. Highway 2, immediately.

Mikayla was there with her dad and youngest sister in the aftermath of the three-vehicle mayhem that had occurred on a clear morning.   

“I’m just so happy they’re all with us,” Janel said on a telephone from her husband Brad Olesiak’s bedside at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth on Thursday. “We’re a close family, the five of us, and this has brought us closer together.”

The Olesiak family is known for its exploits at South Ridge School in Culver, where Brad Olesiak is the longtime varsity volleyball coach and Mikayla is only recently removed from setting the career scoring record in girls basketball.

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On the icy bridge near Twin Lakes Road, Brad, 45, was crippled with a shattered left pelvis, while Mikayla stood as her 11-year-old sister, Adella, held together the large cut on Mikayla’s face.

The girls had managed to carry their dad to the bridge’s shoulder, where he supported himself at the railing - having already fallen once while trying to step out of the family’s Chevy Silverado pickup.    

Janel, 41, explained how her husband saw the crash unfold - a white enclosed trailer behind a westbound and oncoming Ford pickup sashaying behind the truck on the icy two-lane bridge. The Olesiaks were traveling east on their way to Cloquet to pick up a load of wood for a friend. They were hauling a trailer, too. Brad told the girls to brace themselves as he squeezed his ¾-ton pickup as far over to the south bridge rail as possible. Their vehicle exploded through the trailer only to follow through and strike a westbound Chevy Suburban coming out the other side.

An incomplete Minnesota State Patrol report on the crash said damage to all vehicles was severe. The driver of the Ford, Shane Madrinich, 40, of Duluth, was not injured, the Patrol reported. The driver of the Suburban, Lonnie Olson, 60, of Hibbing, said he chipped teeth and was bruised. Olson, the owner of a Hibbing body shop, was traveling with his wife, Debbie Olson, 56, who broke her sternum and had to be pulled from the truck by Lonnie as it started to burn, he told the News Tribune in a phone interview Friday morning.

“It’s amazing we came out,” he said. “We were very fortunate - for everyone to come out alive. That trailer got completely sideways, taking up both lanes of the bridge. Then I watched it explode.”

The Patrol report of the crash said the road conditions were icy; the Patrol was not able to provide more information about the crash in time for this story.

Debbie Olson and the Olesiaks bore the brunt of the crash.

Mikayla and Adella moved quickly after seeing smoke coming from one of the other vehicles, Janel said. With their father across their shoulders coaching them to get them off the center of the highway, they retreated despite their battered physical conditions.  

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Janel called her brother, Jerry Tanski, a first responder with the Canosia Volunteer Fire Department who lives nearby and arrived early to the scene. Janel showed up with her 16-year-old daughter, Celia. Other first responders doused the smoking vehicles with water hoses. A doctor was driving through and stopped to assist, Janel said.

All the Olesiak girls have played volleyball and softball, but Mikayla “probably won’t play this year,” Janel said, despite having planned to suit up for the Mesabi Range College softball team.

Mikayla already has had one plastic surgery this week. The family thinks a 2-inch-by-2-inch board may have struck her in the face because there were boards poking like branches from inside their truck. The family members smelled the air bags as they exploded, Janel said, unfurling visceral details of the crash through the phone.

Mikayla endured three facial fractures in addition to the deep cut from eyebrow-to-nose. She was on her way to an eye appointment on Thursday with abrasions on one of her corneas and a possibly torn retina. She broke a knuckle and was suffering from whiplash and a concussion.

Adella was mostly OK, with a swollen knee, some lacerations, a concussion and whiplash.   

“I have a broken and shattered pelvic socket,” Brad said before ceding the phone. He’s already had three surgeries in the days since - first to stabilize and then to rebuild his hip socket.

“I’m a caretaker,” Janel said. “I take care of a lady. Just getting them home and taking care of them is all I care about right now.”

Brad is a work crew leader at Northeast Regional Corrections Center in Saginaw. He faces a long recovery. The pinball effect of the crash on the bridge has continued on an emotional scale for the family.

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“We’ve been better,” Janel said. “They’re all alive; that’s all we care about.”  

The husband and wife coach their youngest daughter’s softball team. It’s something they’ve done for years and contributes to the web of people concerned about the family’s welfare.

“We’re getting a lot of love and support from all over - people we’ve coached against, people we’ve known for a long time,” Janel said. “Brad is involved in so many things.”  

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