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Accident Scene in Martinez California

“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 ┬áto 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.

 

Martinez Memorial with a Honker visiting

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.

 

Under Construction

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.

Newspaper Accounting

Time Magazine

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)

Lori Hudson 1976

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


19 Responses to “Yuba City High School… 1976 Bus Accident”

  1. Sandy Banks says:

    I don’t think it’s appropriate for 7-year olds to be bussed such long distances, even with chaperones. So I can relate to your concerns, and added to the life experience you had with the bus crash, it makes perfect sense.

  2. Lori Puente Lori says:

    Thanks Sandy! So I’m not so irrational after all? Whew! I was willing to totally be Crazy Lori on this one!

  3. Rick Hurd says:

    Hi Lori:

    I read with great interest your entry on the Yuba City bus accident. As a reporter who deals with some of the rescuers who were involved that day, I was hoping to talk with you about it. If you wouldn’t mind, please email me, and perhaps we can discuss. Thank you.

    Rick Hurd

  4. Robert Van Gilder says:

    Thank you for posting the video. I cried, once again. Hope you and your family are well.-Bob

  5. Lori Puente Lori says:

    You are welcome Bob. It has been tough to really connect with all this again so deeply, but been well worth every tear. We are all well, thank you! Hope yours are as well.

  6. Patricia says:

    Dear Lori,
    I was a freshman at Miramonte High School in Orinda in 1976. You were on your way to my school. You are not alone. My children never went on field trip buses. They never went on the 8th grade trip to Washington DC, 3000 miles from home. I can’t imagine why someone would take that sort of risk with their children, and I have a feeling that I would have been a very different person if that crash had never happened.
    I think about you all often.

  7. Lori Puente Lori says:

    Dear Patricia,
    I noticed in the recent remembrance story that the Coroner also did not allow her children on field trips growing up. I guess I would have to say I’m glad I’m not alone in my decision.

  8. Elizabeth says:

    Dear Lori,
    You should write the story. You have already started it, and it would mean so much to everyone involved. You have a beautiful and sensitive way of remembering details and I am sure it would be healing for you. I am a few years younger than you, but I have had tragic events in my own life, and I found that if stories are never written, then eventually they are forgotten.
    It would be a story of triumph and healing. My kids go on school bus trips all the time and I never even think about it. Cars seem more dangerous to me, but I have lost friends in car accidents. What we have experienced shapes us, that is for sure! Love and blessings to you, Elizabeth

  9. gary trimble says:

    …I remember that day…I lost a good friend in that crash..Larry Sherer…his father was my pastor at my local church…what a great friend he Larry was….Lori ..I can relate to you and your story…I have a babies of my own now and dont let them out of my site unless I or my wife goes with them…people thank we are crazy or worry to much…we say no way…cant worry enough..lol….this crash was hugh in Yuba City….we are still a fairly tight community….but that rock this little town…I had just went and seen Fiddler on the Roof at the high school..oh, maybe two weeks before this happen…Larry wanted me and my family to come watch and we did…and great show it was…I will alway remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news of the crash…those things never leave you ….God bless you..

  10. Lori Puente Lori says:

    I remember Larry. Thank you for sharing your connection to him. I am sorry for your loss.

  11. JoHannah Mercurio says:

    I was a freshman at Alhambra High School in Martinez at the time of the accident. I remember an announcement coming over the PA system in the school that anyone 18 or over should go and give blood to the victims of the Yuba City bus crash. Many times I have exited that freeway over the course of my life here and not a time goes by that I take that turn and not think of the students from Yuba City. You will always be in my thoughts.
    Jo Hannah Mercurio

  12. Lori Puente Lori Puente says:

    Dear JoHannah, Thank you for your lovely comments and sentiment. It was a long time before I realized how tragically this accident impacted our sisters and brothers of Martinez. It surely was a life changing event for so many of us.

  13. JoHannah Mercurio says:

    Some of my friends are in the process of creating a new marker to be left at the crash site in memory of the students and teachers who lost their lives that day.

  14. Lori Puente Lori Puente says:

    That’s really amazing. Thanks for telling us, it means so much to those in Martinez and Yuba City.

  15. Jerri Garofalo says:

    Dear Lori
    You can imagine how shocked I was to find this on the Myeloma Beacon since I have progressing MGUS with lots of symptoms and was also living in YUba City at the time of that horrible accident. Yes, I remember it all too well. We had 11 teenagers ( I think that number is correct ) from our church who lost that day. I was a young mother and some of those girls were in a class i taught atchirch, their parents were my friends. To add to that, I had the responsibility of being the one to go to the bus drivers mother ( an elderly and ailing nice lady) and commissioned to explain the badnews to her.
    As you can understand, the whole disaster is engraved in my memory. thing is. Horrible memory for me too,both as a friend to many who died, as well as their parents and family. As our other 3 children were born I tried not to be an over bearing an obsessive mother, but things like that bus accident and other horrible incidents of the day weighed on me as well.

    I am curious about your connection to Myeloma? I have often wondered about growing up in Yuba City and being exposed many times and in many ways to pesticides. Our house was ajacent to a large barley field and i recall watching the crops duster fly over head spraying insecticides….what we did not know then. : (
    Then there were all the nuclear missiles in the area related to Beale AFB, (during the 60 s and 70s ) and no one ever talked about thAt or any possible side effects, mishaps, etc. I would be interested I chatting with you more on this subject. I have a sister who still lives there and may have this too.
    The doctor first learned of my MGUS in February of 2012 when my M-spike was 1.5 ( but he chose not to tell me.) Due to continued ill symptoms and on going infections, (including 2 episodes of pmeumonia in this year) ii sought another doctor. Thank goodness i found a great new doctor as he immediately zeroed in on my problems. He diagnosed me MGUS and Lupus both, having found my M-spike had risen to 4. A month later when i saw a hemotologist and more studies were done, she found my M-spike had once again risen, now to 5. My bone scan was good and my blood calcium is high normal. I am not anemic ( probably because i have taken supplements for years), and they say there are no known bone lesions. However, i do have a LOT of bone pain, Perpheral Neuropathy, and an odd tumor in my arm. They say it is a fatty tumor pressinf on the nerve, and more studies are in the works. I am scheduled for a Bone Density test next week along with a Bone Marrow Test.
    I just turned 59 and do not fit the standard for MGUS or Myeloma? The only other possibility besides pesticides is that, I was born in Arizona during the time they did Nuclear testing in Nevada. I have read, that a nuclear dust cloud settled over various areas including AZ.

    Again, I would be very interested in hearing from you. I hope you are doing well.
    Jerri in VA

  16. Eleanor Arroyo says:

    Hi Lori, I am a transportation supervisor as well as a state certified school bus driver instructor. I can assure you and all of the people who were effected by this very tragic and very sad accident that happened on May 21st, 1976, that the whole school bus driving industry was forever changed on that day.

    This accident prompted the State of California to adopt over 20 new laws and regulation dealing with passenger transportation safety. As an instructor, I make sure that each one of my students learns about this accident, learns about the new laws and regulations, and is proficient in each vehicle that he or she drives each day to transport students to and from school and to take students on an activity trip. We love our “precious cargo” and work hard to prevent a tragedy like this from happening again.

    My heart goes out to you and everyone touched by this tragedy. All I can do is try to prevent it from happening again,… one school bus driver at a time.

    Sincerely, Eleanor Arroyo- Monterey, California

  17. Lori Puente Lori says:

    Thank you Eleanor! Over the years I had moments where I felt irrational, but then I just had to give my self a hug and realize it was my experience, along with so many others, and it changes our perspective.

    I appreciate all that you do to help those carrying our babies to be vigilant in that trust.

    Following many school bus drivers on my kids’ field trips gave me heart palpitations. Hardly being able to keep up with them in my car on the highway outside of the DC area. I was usually sweating by the time we would arrive at our destination. I wish that this story could go beyond the CA bus drivers. I’m sure it has to some degree, but probably not enough.

    Thank you again for all that you do and your kind words of support and understanding.

  18. Brandy Prothero says:

    I dreadfully regret the day I heard of what happened to all 28 students and the teacher who passed away. Unfortunately I wasn’t yet born, both my mother and father had went to YCHS. I wasn’t born till 78. Though it wasn’t in my time, I did though suffer from the tragic accident. As you may have seen my last name is Prothero, thats right same last name as the driver who was driving the bus Evan J. Prothero, my grandfather. I am 36 now, but you would not believe how hard it was for me to make it through school just because of my last name. It became a battle just trying to make it through school. If that wasn’t enough my freshman year of high school became a nother tragic memory. Do you all remember May of 1992 the Lindhurst High School shooting in the little town of Olivehurst? I was there I remember every moment. I was only 14, many years have passed since , but its not easy to forget. Im sorry for the loss of all the students and teacher of 1976 who are always remembered. Can I ask one thing , how come there is so much about the tragic loss of 1976 and so little about the tragic loss of 1992?

  19. Eleanor Arroyo says:

    Hello Brandy,
    Thank you for posting your story. I am very sorry about your suffering from this tragic event as well. When I teach people how to be school bus drivers, I always make a reference to this accident. I try to help them to understand that EVERYONE is affected by a serious accident… not only the victims and their families, but also the bus driver and his family. I have great empathy for your grandfather. Being a school bus driver myself, I put myself in his place and try to understand what he went through. May I ask, what happened to your grandfather? Is he still living? How were you and your family affected? Please allow me to know the “rest of the story”, so that I can help others learn.

    BTW, when I teach people, I don’t judge your grandfather. This could have happened to any school bus driver at any time. I only use this as a tool to help future school bus driver to be safe and learn from the mistakes of others. There are many more laws in place now, than there were in 1976. In fact, our whole industry was improved after this tragic event.

    In regards to the tragic school shooting in Olivehurst, I did not know about that. I grew up in California, yet I don’t remember hearing about this on the news. Unfortunately that did not make such an impression as the school bus accident in 1976. I cannot answer why.

    If you are not comfortable answering my questions here, feel free to send me a note on my email awnie2001@yahoo.com

    I hope to hear back from you.

    Sincerely, Eleanor Arroyo- Monterey, California

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