“Sometime during all of this, someone yelled that they were going to lift the bus and wanted me out. I crawled out and saw the big Shell Oil cranes overhead, and watched as they lifted the bus. As the cranes carefully elevated the bus, it gave us 360 degree access to all the children still inside. I could see up and down along the bus that the other firefighters were now able to get to all the kids that had been inaccessible before.” – Capt Xon Burris
I graduated from Yuba City High School, Home of the Honkers, in 1976. approximately 3 weeks before our graduation, with heightened excitement for us as it was America’s bi-centennial celebration around the country, my HS choir, en-route to a singing competition in Martinez, California, suffered a tragic accident, which is still considered the worst bus accident in our country’s history.
We lost 28 students and a teacher that day. There was no one in our small town that was untouched very profoundly by this tragedy.
As they were exiting the freeway on a elevated off-ramp, the brakes failed on the bus. The driver survived, and one student wrote he could see the panicked horrified look on the bus driver’s face in the mirror above his head. He saw him desperately keep pushing on the brake only to see his foot go all the way to the floor three times. With all his strength he tried to hold the steering wheel, but the wheels went up on the curb and the bus lurched over the side rail and plunged 29 feet below onto its roof.
Devastated doesn’t even come close to describing this horrific event as we began to learn of our lost classmates, and the Choir Director’s wife, a newly married 26 year old. Mr. Esterbrook, her husband, was in the car ahead and saw the whole thing unfold in his rearview mirror. A student riding with him who had just gotten her driver’s license was instructed to go find help. Pre-cellphone days and in a place she had never been, she drove to the nearest business, blurted out what had happened and collapsed to the floor. Like some of the big disasters in our modern 24 hour news cycle, which didn’t exist then, we were just numb. An entire town and neighboring areas struggled to comprehend what we were being told. It spread like wildfire with inaccuracies that grew and changed by the second. Not knowing who went, who died, who was injured, if any survived at all. Grasping for word that it was a terrible mistake, it just couldn’t be true.
A memorial was erected on our campus shortly after it happened, but with the times the way they are these days, no one can go visit it due to security reasons. Our Class has wanted to do something for a number of years that was more appropriate and accessible. There were barriers, obstacles, and some opposition to these efforts, but the dream has never died.
In the past several months, a Facebook campaign has taken place led by a small number of local classmates to raise funds to push forward with a memorial in Yuba City, in a public location to honor those who perished and those who survived.
Those who survived suffered years of trauma, both physical and emotional. One young woman with a promising career as a singer, all set to go off to college and embark on honing her craft, had her voice taken from her because of a tracheotomy needed to save her life. She became a dancer instead. These stories and countless others from those on the scene of the accident trying to save any they could from the wreckage, to what happened to those who were engaged and lost their fiance’s on the bus, were shared in this campaign. It has warped us back to 35 years ago remembering our classmates and all that we lost. Looking at their young faces, stuck in time, exactly as we remember them.
Our finals were cancelled, and instead of celebrating our major milestone of completing HS and heading off to our lives, we were attending funerals and visiting families and hospitals. It was hard for a bunch of teenagers (ages 14-18) to negotiate this tragedy, not to mention our whole town and all their families. A set of twins were lost and another set of twins lost one while the other survived. Just a few of the stories that were shared. Quite frankly we could probably write a book about it and all the stories and maybe someday, someone will. It would be a terrific treasure for many of us. Like all tragedies, there are things that make your heart ache and there are things that make you swell with pride.
Twenty years after the accident, Martinez, CA erected their own memorial. Martinez was impacted by this accident profoundly as well. We didn’t have disaster preparedness like we do now. They were ill equipped to handle something like this. The first rescuer on the scene was a rookie, 22 years old, and he has been instrumental in telling the story of what happened and how Martinez coped with trying to save the children. He was personally and profoundly impacted by this experience and has for years shared the story of their efforts to rescue everyone and his desires to know how those who survived have gone on with their lives.
Now, we are erecting a duplicate of the one in Martinez. Which I think is pretty amazing and poignant. We became connected by this tragedy on that day with the town and the people of Martinez, which was supposed to be just another fun school choir competition.
While on the one hand it has dredged up a lot of emotions, those of teenagers who are now grown, being reminded of our friends whose journey in life that we shared, who didn’t come with us.
On the other hand, we have learned more about them, been reminded of things we had long forgotten and shared both in the sadness but also the triumphs of their families and those who survived and went on to live productive lives and have families of their own.
I’m extremely proud of my classmates. Those who graduated in ’76 and those who graduated before and after us. We have come together with heart and funds to make this dream a reality, and I’m feeling extremely blessed that I’m here in California now, to be able to be there and participate in this dedication. We will be together again as we were all those years ago, getting through this long overdue Remembrance together. Only now we are adults, able to articulate better how we feel. An opportunity to say things we wish we had, but didn’t know how.
Tom Randolph’s site (This site was done a long time ago, so you need to click on underlined titles to get in and see some of the stories. ‘We’ hope to revamp it and bring it up to date, which was Tom’s wish before he passed away.)
Responder’s Recall (A remembrance of the accident 35 years later featuring a witness/coroner/our class president)
For many of you searching for information on this bus accident will be directed to my blog which is a caregiving blog. You may wonder the connection. There is none, except that it is an experience in my life and I write not just about cancer and caring for those you love, but snippets of OUR LIFE outside the realm of that subject. So if you are a classmate and wondering “who the hell is Lori?” Here is my yearbook picture to help, perhaps jog your memory. I am the older sister of Lynn Hudson who lost 3 of her friends that day (Marla Azim, Rachel Carlson, & Danielle Cote), along with many of my own.
One of the ways, and there were many, this impacted my life, was I wouldn’t let my children travel on field trips with their schools unless I drove them in my car. One trip my daughter completely missed out on when her school wanted to take them 2 hours on a charter bus to see the Amish in Lancaster, PA. I was so frustrated as to why there was need to take 7 year olds so far. I couldn’t take her and I was told she would have to go to school that day if she didn’t join them. I think I said something like, “Arrest me!” I was decent friends with the principal and shared my story. Despite my very personal experience I could not justify in my own mind the cost and reasoning behind putting all these babies on charter busses for hours of driving far from home. I think I would have balked regardless, but my emotions were definitely a tad bit over the edge. Montana felt left out of course, and I felt terrible, but it was something I just couldn’t shake. It wasn’t rational, statistically, but sometimes when you’re a parent, you aren’t rational and that is just how it goes.
Uploaded 2012, by Dean Esterbrook, Choir Director. A 1975 recording of our sweet classmates voices: Behold All Flesh, Brahms