Bus crash mem­o­ries linger 40 years later


Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - ByJuan Castillo | jcastillo@states­man.com

On the night af­ter Christ­mas 40 years ago, two buses carved a thin line across the vast black­ness of the New Mex­ico plains. They car­ried 58 young peo­ple and seven chap­er­ones from Wood­lawn Bap­tist Church in South Austin, the pas­sen­gers still rev­el­ing in the merry hol­i­day glow, en route to a re­li­gious re­treat and ski­ing in the east­ern New Mex­ico moun­tains.

Over a tight, two-lane bridge about 10 miles east of Fort Sum­ner, John Roberts, a postal clerk and the 38-year-old driver of the lead bus, squeezed the ve­hi­cle past an on­com­ing trac­tor­trailer car­ry­ing cat­tle. He thought it was mov­ing too fast. A moment later, in the rear-view mir­ror, he saw sparks light up the night, “like a flash­bulb go­ing off,” he would say later. In the flash, Roberts wit­nessed the be­he­moth cat­tle truck and the trail­ing bus crash with such fe­roc­ity that the col­li­sion ripped the bus frame from its body.

Roberts pulled over. He and some of the pas­sen­gers ran back into the dark, 26-de­gree night, and on that lonely stretch of U.S. 60-84, hun­dreds of miles away from home, they came upon a hor­rific scene: The cat­tle truck had sideswiped the bridge rail­ing and then jack­knifed, whip­ping its long trailer into the bus with

deadly force, pen­e­trat­ing the bus’s first four rows of seats, ac­cord­ing to a court doc­u­ment.

“It mashed the front end of the bus like an ac­cor­dion,” said Robert Wes­son, who was on the bus that night and suf­fered se­ri­ous in­juries.

Nine­teen peo­ple died in the crash, in­clud­ing 16 teenagers, most of them stu­dents at Crock­ett High School, life­long pals and neigh­bors from closeknit en­claves near West Ben White Boule­vard and Man­chaca Road. Seven­teen oth­ers were in­jured.

Two fam­i­lies lost two chil­dren in the ac­ci­dent, and four of the dead had lived on one South Austin street. Eigh­teen-yearold Frank Estes, an only child, be­came an or­phan; his fa­ther, Jerry, 41, was driv­ing the bus, and his mother, Glo­ria, 42, was sit­ting nearby.

The tragedy rocked Austin (pop­u­la­tion about 250,000) and drew it closer to­gether when it wasn’t the big city it is to­day, be­fore For­mula One and food trail­ers, be­fore smart growth and smart­phones. South Austin had its own vibe and small-town rhythms, and for many of the teens aboard the buses, a good time was the Fri­day night pizza and ping­pong so­cial at Wood­lawn Bap­tist on Man­chaca Road.

The Viet­nam War was on­go­ing. Still, “it was a dif­fer­ent time then,” Su­san Arnold, an­other crash sur­vivor, said. “Life was pretty sim­ple in the early 1970s.”

The ac­ci­dent made na­tional head­lines. Wal­ter Cronkite talked about it on the evening news. Four days later, 5,000 peo­ple streamed into Mu­nic­i­pal Au­di­to­rium for ser­vices for 14 of the 19 vic­tims. Four­teen cas­kets lined the front of the au­di­to­rium, and former Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son and his wife, Lady Bird John­son, were among the mourn­ers. Many, if not most, South Austin busi­nesses closed their doors for the solemn oc­ca­sion.

Time can dull mem­o­ries, smooth the once-jagged edges of pain. But for the sur­vivors, the tragedy is un­shak­able, al­ways back there some­where.

“Even to­day, 40 years later, we talk about it like it was yes­ter­day. It’s been a part of all of our lives,” Arnold said.

Sur­vivors de­scribe the out­lines of ter­ri­fy­ing, heart-wrench­ing scenes — the cries for help, the heroic, fran­tic ef­forts to com­fort and tend to the in­jured, the limp and life­less bod­ies tan­gled in the heap. The col­li­sion sent lug­gage hurtling from the back of the bus and wrenched seats loose from the floor moor­ings, pin­ning the vic­tims.

“You knew friends were dy­ing,” Wes­son said.

John Roberts

Per­haps no one is more cir­cum­spect about re­liv­ing that night than John Roberts. “It just stirs things up that I don’t think peo­ple want to go back into any­more,” he said.

He saw a lot of bru­tal things. So did his chil­dren Cathleen and James, who were with him that night.

An ex-Marine and the church’s bus driver for 12 years, Roberts had sensed the im­pend­ing crash be­cause he thought the trac­tor-trailer was bar­rel­ing too fast over the bridge, too close to the con­crete rail­ing.

Af­ter coming to a stop, Roberts warned his pas­sen­gers to steel them­selves be­cause there would prob­a­bly be dead and in­jured peo­ple in the crash. “I told them, ‘There’s a hor­ri­ble ac­ci­dent back there. If you can’t stand this kind of trauma, don’t get off.’ The older ones got off with me.”

In the bolt to the crip­pled ve­hi­cle, screams pierced the silent night. The in­jured were in shock; Roberts fig­ured there were mass ca­su­al­ties.

“I was run­ning around ev­ery­where,” he re­called. As­sist­ing those who were se­ri­ously in­jured and bleed­ing heav­ily was para­mount. From try­ing to stem the bleed­ing to keep­ing the vic­tims warm, no act was too small. The older boys helped pull bod­ies out of the bus and laid them along­side a cul­vert, cov­er­ing them with coats and blan­kets. Re­mark­ably, in those tense mo­ments, no one said a word.

“It was all work­ing as a team,” Roberts said. “We all knew what to do.”

“Kids had to step up and do things that you wouldn’t ex­pect kids to have to do,” said Kim Tom­lin, a pas­sen­ger on Roberts’ bus who was Kim John­son back then. Her boyfriend, Keith Tom­lin (they would later marry), was the first stu­dent to en­ter the crip­pled bus. He worked closely with Roberts to help the in­jured, draw­ing on his re­cent medic train­ing and his work with an am­bu­lance com­pany.

Af­ter the se­ri­ously in­jured had been taken to a Clo­vis, N.M., hospi­tal, Roberts, back on his bus, took the stu­dents who didn’t re­quire hos­pi­tal­iza­tion to the First Bap­tist Church in Fort Sum­ner, which pro­vided food and lodg­ing. Roberts talked to the Wood­lawn pas­tor by phone and kept him abreast of de­vel­op­ments. Over the phone, Roberts con­soled dis­traught par­ents, and he met with oth­ers who rushed to New Mex­ico af­ter learn­ing of the crash. Roberts said he tried sooth­ing the emo­tional pain of the kids who were stunned and griev­ing. The next day on a Clo­vis tar­mac, wait­ing to board a plane home with the sur­vivors, his own grief caught up with him, cascading to the sur­face. “I lost it,” Roberts said.

Now a se­cu­rity guard, Roberts teaches Sun­day school at Wood­lawn, where he is a dea­con and where a me­mo­rial of gran­ite and stone stands in the church court­yard. Roberts still stops and reads the names on the plaque. He knew all of the vic­tims, and it hurts him, he says, to have seen them hurt and dy­ing.

“It shouldn’t have hap­pened. That’s what I think about when I think about the ac­ci­dent,” Roberts said. “It just shouldn’t have hap­pened.”

Guy Tay­lor

There were no cri­sis in­ter­ven­tion teams in 1972.

“We only had each other and our faith to help us through that tough time,” said Guy Tay­lor, a Crock­ett High ju­nior who lost close bud­dies in the crash, in­clud­ing 15-year-old twins Jimmy and Johnny Reeves. He played in the band with the Reeves boys, went to church with them and went on dou­ble dates with their girl­friends.

“Your mind was ob­sessed with many ques­tions, ‘Why would God have al­lowed this?’ ” Tay­lor said.

Now an ad­junct pro­fes­sor of crim­i­nal jus­tice at Cen­tral Texas Col­lege and liv­ing in Mar­ble Falls, Tay­lor, 57, said he had to wres­tle, too, with some­thing else: He would have been on the trip had he not de­cided at the eleventh hour to work with his dad to make some ex­tra cash. Had he gone, surely he would have sat in the front of the bus, his usual spot be­cause he was prone to mo­tion sick­ness.

“Would I have been killed, or (been) on the other bus?” Tay­lor said.

Like all young peo­ple, he and his class­mates thought they were bul­let­proof. When death came so jar­ringly, they were ille­quipped to cope.

“We still have prob­lems with it to­day,” Tay­lor said.

Robert Wes­son

One moment, 17-yearold Robert Wes­son saw the flash of sparks out­side the bus’s left side. The next, his face slammed into the seat in front of him. Sucked un­der the seat, his face hit the seat’s metal bar with such force it knocked out his front teeth. With glass in his eye and in the daze of a con­cus­sion, a bro­ken hip and a bro­ken nose, Wes­son crawled through the wreck­age and its cave­like dark­ness.

“I could see lights at the end of the bus, and I was try­ing to get through it all to get out,” Wes­son said re­cently. He would come upon peo­ple he knew, un­able to dis­cern why they were asleep or not mov­ing. One girl shouted for help get­ting a seat off her.

When the crash oc­curred, Wes­son had been sit­ting across the aisle from Jimmy Reeves. “Ev­ery­body knew some­body who died in that crash. The whole school was dev­as­tated,” said Wes­son, 57, who now lives out­side Jo­plin, Mo., where he owns a leather and shoe re­pair shop.

“I think all of us were pretty keen on each other,” Wes­son said. A ju­nior at the time of the crash, he was in auto me­chan­ics and loved hot rods and dat­ing girls, water ski­ing, fish­ing and hunt­ing. He and Guy Tay­lor, also a fan of mus­cle cars, were in the Tex­ans, a Crock­ett ser­vice and spirit group.

Wes­son was hos­pi­tal­ized for weeks and missed funeral and me­mo­rial ser­vices. When he re­turned to Crock­ett, he couldn’t help but no­tice the empty chairs at empty desks, where his fallen class­mates had sat.

The crash, Wes­son said, is not some­thing he lives with on a daily ba­sis. “I try not to,” he said.

Su­san Arnold

Arnold was Su­san Allen then, a 14-year-old fresh­man at Crock­ett who played the pi­ano and dreamed of mak­ing the ten­nis team. She and her friends had ea­gerly an­tic­i­pated the trip, which drew so much in­ter­est that Wood­lawn Bap­tist Church leased a sec­ond bus to ac­com­mo­date ev­ery­one. Ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments, the leased ve­hi­cle was an ac­tiv­ity bus sim­i­lar to a school bus.

Wood­lawn was a mag­net for young peo­ple in the close-knit com­mu­nity. “The church was real pop­u­lar,” Arnold re­called. “We had a Fri­day evening Great Hall there, where we played ping­pong and board games and things like that.”

Arnold has no me­mory of the crash. It knocked her un­con­scious, and when she came to, she didn’t know where she was or what had hap­pened.

Emerg­ing from that fog, the an­swers be­came ob­vi­ous as she gazed at the shat­tered win­dow be­side her; it re­sem­bled a kalei­do­scope. Arnold felt some­thing push­ing down firmly, harshly, against her back. It was one of the seats that had come off the floor; in the chaos, the pas­sen­gers grabbed what­ever perch they could to stay on their feet and scram­ble out the rear of the bus. Some­one helped Su­san get out. She suf­fered a bro­ken col­lar­bone and ribs, bro­ken bones in her feet and a large gash on her fore­head.

“They were just try­ing to lay us out on the sleep­ing bags or blan­kets un­til the am­bu­lances could get there. It was cold,” she said.

Her brother Bob, who was on the bus driven by Roberts, helped carry the in­jured.

Late into the night of the crash, fam­i­lies gath­ered at the church, where the Rev. James Abing­ton, the Wood­lawn pas­tor (since de­ceased), somberly an­nounced the names of the dead as they were con­firmed.

The crash be­came a topic of con­ver­sa­tions on Face­book as the 40th an­niver­sary ap­proached. Arnold was struck by the emo­tions, so raw even 40 years later. Talk­ing about tragedy is part of heal­ing, she rea­soned.

Arnold, now a credit union branch man­ager in Florida, said it is dif­fi­cult to fathom that there was no coun­sel­ing then.

“This is a church, and we were all Chris­tians. We all know that the (vic­tims) had a re­la­tion­ship with Je­sus Christ and were in heaven,” Arnold said. “Still, you’re 14 or 15 years old, and 19 peo­ple just died.”

40 years later

You never get over tragedy as much as you learn to live with it. On the day the na­tion reeled from the un­fath­omable news that a gun­man had killed 26 peo­ple, 20 of them chil­dren, at a Con­necti­cut school, dozens gath­ered in Austin un­der a somber gray sky and the twist­ing, yawn­ing oaks in the Crock­ett High School court­yard for some heal­ing of their own, of wounds 40 years old.

Some who sur­vived the ac­ci­dent or who lost loved ones formed a cir­cle and held hands as the school choir sang “Lean on Me,” and hun­dreds of stu­dents watched qui­etly. Some fought back tears. The cir­cle in­cluded Frank Estes, who lost his en­tire fam­ily that night. He wore a thin, peace­ful smile.

The story goes that the young peo­ple on the Wood­lawn bus had been singing the 1972 pop hit with its lyrics about deal­ing with pain and sor­row in the mo­ments be­fore the crash. Af­ter the ac­ci­dent, some took it as a sign that they would need to come to­gether in the face of tragedy.

“Lean on me, when you’re not strong And I’ll be your friend I’ll help you carry on” Estes had com­mit­ted to a life of min­istry a year be­fore the crash. He made good on the prom­ise. Now a pas­tor at Hous­ton’s West Oaks Fel­low­ship Church, which he founded, he led a stir­ring prayer, ask­ing God to help those still hurt­ing emo­tion­ally and phys­i­cally and ask­ing sur­vivors to be grate­ful to God for the time they had with those they loved. “They brought so many bless­ings, so much joy,” Estes said.

In an in­ter­view later, Estes said it’s im­pos­si­ble to make sense of un­think­able tragedy.

“What we have to un­der­stand,” he said, “is that even though it causes great pain, there is still a God that watches over us and there is still an an­swer for us. I’m just not sure we can com­pre­hend it in this life.”

Rodolfo gon­za­lez / ameR­i­can-states­man

Ron Hicks (left) and Frank Estes lay a wreath Fri­day to mark the 40th an­niver­sary of the Wood­lawn Bap­tist Church bus tragedy, in which both of Estes’ par­ents were killed.

This bus was car­ry­ing teen mem­bers of Wood­lawn Bap­tist Church and chap­er­ones to a re­li­gious re­treat in New Mex­ico on Dec. 26, 1972, when it col­lided with a cat­tle truck. The crash killed 19 peo­ple, in­clud­ing 16 teens, and in­jured 17.


Jan­ice Collins touches the name of her sis­ter, Karen, who died in the 1972 crash.


JOHN ROBERTS: The lead bus driver who squeaked by the trailer that col­lided with the bus be­hind him led the ef­fort to help the vic­tims.


The former Su­san Allen suf­fered a bro­ken col­lar­bone and ribs, bro­ken bones in her feet and a large gash on her fore­head dur­ing the crash. She was 14.

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