Sunday, February 8, 2015

Evans, Colorado Bus/Train crash

Evans Colorado School Bus/Train Crash
The Morning that Christmas Died In Weld County
Dec 14th 1961




Back when I was a child, living in the small town of Boykins, Virginia, the school bus bringing students home from Southampton High School (Bus # 18...yep, I still remember the number!) would stop just shy of the railroad crossing that bisected Main Street to let the kids who lived in town off. Now, this was a signaled crossing that had three tracks (Two track main line and a siding), and if a train was coming, the lights and bells would start well before it reached the crossing. 

Those lights and bells gave more than adequate warning that a train was coming, but one bus rider...usually a student who didn't live in town...would still climb down, walk across the tracks looking in both directions, then, if all was clear, wave the bus across before climbing back aboard. In the event he saw a head light approaching, he'd walk back to the bus and look inside, telling the driver something to the effect of 'Train's coming'. The bells and lights would generally begin their warning clang and flash just about the time he gave the driver that information.

I lived in Boykins until the end of my 8th grade year, and on the one or two occasions after I hit Jr High that I rode Bus 18 home instead of riding with the carpool of Boykins kids that went to Southampton Jr High,  there was still a student 'walking the track'. As I climbed off of bus 18, and walked towards my dad's insurance office, anticipating sucking down the 16 ounce Pepsi that would be waiting for me in the ancient 'fridge in the back room, I didn't give the 'Track Walker' a single thought...it was just a normal part of the ride home. I had no idea just why the policy of 'walking the track' was started, nor that nearly a half century later I'd be writing about the incident that caused it to be put in place.

But, here I am, forty years and change after I left Boykins, doing just that. And be warned, gang...this one's gonna rip your heart out.

To chronicle this one we're heading out west, to one of the most beautiful of U.S. States, The Rocky Mountain State...Colorado. When the great majority of people think 'Colorado' they think 'Rocky Mountains'. The highest peak in the Rockies is located in Colorado, John Denver famously sang about Colorado's Rocky Mountains, and the entire state's at least 3000 or so feet above sea level...heck, the state's known as 'The Rocky Mountain State'. 

Thing is, while The Rockies dominate the western portion of Colorado there's still lots and lots of flat land in Eastern Colorado, and Weld County...shaped a bit like a stylized 'S' and butted up against the Wyoming state line in the northeastern part of the state...is generally dinner-table flat, covered with corn fields, and dotted with small towns and several small to medium sized cities. One of those small cities is Evans. a pretty little burg of around 20,000 souls situated in the western portion of the county, hard by the southern boundary of Weld County's county seat of Greely. It's also the site of what is, to this day, the worst...and most heart breaking...traffic accident in Colorado history.

In the western part of the U.S. the transition from urban 'City' landscape to rural 'country' landscape can be as sudden and abrupt as the flip of a switch, and from looking at Google Maps' satellite and street views, the scenery in and around Evans goes from City to Rural just that abruptly as you drive east on 37th Street, heading out of town towards a curve where a rural country road used to cross the Union Pacific tracks.

I'm taking you around your elbow to get to your thumb a bit to get to that curve, BTW, but there's a method to my madness. Thirty-Seventh Street becomes State Route 54...and decidedly rural...as you leave Evans, heading east. Take S.R.54 east for about a mile and three quarters past the city line until you get to a dirt and gravel rural road numbered County Rd 45 branching off to the south. Hang a right on County Rd 45 and take it south, across the Union Pacific tracks, then through the very small community of Auburn, until you get to County Rd 52.  Keep Auburn in mind, BTW...this tiny community plays a huge part in the story to come.

CR 45's intersection with CR 52 is one of those strangely laid out crossroads that every rural community in the U.S. has at least a couple of.  West County Rd 52 'T's into CR 45 from the west, while CR 45 becomes East CR 52 at that same intersection and curves gently to the left until it's aimed just about due east. When we reach that intersection, we're going to hang a right on the also dirt and gravel-paved West CR 52 , blow past the left turn where a short, dead end section of CR 45 continues south, and head west on CR 52

Map of the area where the crossing used to be. The square denotes the approximate area of detail of the first satellite view, the circle the approximate area of the close-up satellite view. The location of old Auburn School, and the tiny community of Auburn itself is also denoted...old Auburn School is where Duane Harms started his bus route that fateful morning. Delta Elementary...where the majority of the kids on Bus#2 were headed that morning...was located on 20th Street, well north of the area covered by the map.  Map Courtesy of Google Maps.

The Union Pacific tracks, along with County Road 45 and West County Road 52, form a rough triangle, with the tracks...slanting southward from east to west...forming the triangle's long side. West County Rd 52 parallels the tracks for a very short distance after you turn off of CR 45, then bends to the right and runs due west. When you hang that right onto West C R 52, then round that curve to the right the tracks are probably a good two football fields and change north of you, but they're slanting diagonally across the landscape, closing in on the site of what used to be the grade crossing where CR 52 crossed the tracks.

There's a reason I sent you guys on this round-about trip, by the way. I want you, with your mind's eye, to approach what used to be the grade crossing where CR 52 crossed the Union Pacific tracks from the same direction Duane Harms approached it from while driving Weld County School Bus #2 on the frigid, snow-dusted morning of December 14th, 1961.

Today, as County Road 52 approaches the tracks it takes a sweeping bend to the left to run parallel to them until it 'T's into County Rd 43. To continue west on 52, you hang a right on CR 43, cross the tracks at the signal-controlled crossing there, then, a tenth of a mile or so north of the crossing, take a left back onto County Rd 52  where it again continues westward. Now...go back and take a look at that sweeping curve where CR 52 bends away from the tracks...then look at the intersection where 52 continues westward off of CR 43.

Better yet, take a look at the pair of maps I knocked out below to show the road layout and now long-gone RR crossing as they existed in December 1961. Back then the intersection of CR 52 and CR 43 was  a '+' intersection, and CR 52 used to cross those tracks right at the point where it now curves away from them. It doesn't take but a very casual glance to see that the road crossed the tracks at an extreme angle...less than thirty degrees. That's the angle Duane Harms had to deal with on that frigid December morning nearly 53 years ago as I write this. And that's where our story starts.

Satellite view of the area of the old crossing, with C.R. 52's old alignment, as well as the directions of travel of both the bus and train, indicated. You can see how extreme the crossing's angle was here. Satellite View Courtesy of Google Maps

Close-up satellite view of the crossing area, with the old alignment indicated. Here you can really see how sharp the angle between C.R. 52 and the tracks was, and as a result, how screwed up the sight-line for drivers looking for a train would have been. The memorial that was erected to remember the kids who lost their lives is in the center of the image.  Satellite View Courtesy Google Maps


Up until about 1960 the kids in the Auburn area had their own school...a small, blond-brick three room building at the intersection of County Roads 54 and 45...but the consolidation of hundreds of one or two building school districts across the state had closed Auburn School at the end of the previous school year, and in September 1961 the kids in Auburn had become students of the now long gone Delta Elementary, as well as Meeker Jr High, and Greeley High, all in Greeley. To get the kids in the newly formed Greeley School District #6 into town required the use of those oil-smoke belching yellow monsters from all of our childhoods...school buses. One of them was Bus #2, a nearly new 1960 GMC-Wayne 60 passenger bus. It was under the command of a slender 23 year old named Duane Harms, a school janitor at Delta who also reluctantly took on the twice daily job of driving Bus #2 to grab some extra income for his new family...Wife Judy and new-born daughter Lynda. They lived, a little ironically, next door to the now shuttered Auburn School, in the small house once occupied by the school's teacher. On the brutally cold morning of December 14th, 1961 Duane had gone outside and started bus#2 up to get the heat rolling, then gone back inside to finish getting ready and possibly...I'll even go with probably, with the temp being a not-so-toasty 6 degrees...down a hot cup of coffee. 

A 1960 GMC school bus, much like the one involved in the Evans accident.


Old Auburn School, now a private residence. Duane Harms lived in the small house to the right Image Courtesy Google Street View
 

Meanwhile, along the roughly square bus route he covered, around 50 kids from six years old to sixteen were diving into the morning get-ready-for-school-tasks we all remember. Most would catch Bus #2. A few woke up with that scratchy throat, sore-all-over, absolutely no energy feeling that signaled a cold coming on. Moms would feel foreheads and, with the expertise known to Moms the world over, declare them unfit for school on that particular day...these kids would get to roll back over and go back to sleep. A pair of sisters, tired from getting in late from a Christmas pageant rehearsal, overslept. Another young man caught a ride in with his older bro so he could speak to a teacher about a project. Another, standing in the bitter cold, had a neighbor, on the way in to town anyway, take pity on him and offer a ride in a warm truck cab rather than a long wait in frigid temperatures. A third had a dentist appointment. Thirty-six kids would end up catching the bus.

Eighty or so miles away, a trio of bright yellow and gray EMD E9 locomotives roared west across the flat plains of Northeastern Colorado, riding point on 16 equally brightly colored passenger cars...the Union Pacific Railroad's City of Denver, under the command of veteran Union Pacific engineer Herbert Sommers. Sommers was a 40-plus year veteran of railroading. He'd been with the U.P since 1918, had been an engineer for 20 years, and had been promoted to Senior Engineer four months earlier...a position that allowed him to pick his assignment. He'd chosen the starting/homebound legs of the City of Denver's daily round trip to Chicago...from Denver to Sterling in the afternoon, pass the train off to another crew in Sterling, sleep there over night, then drive the train back into Denver on it's home bound trip the next morning. Normally, they roared through Auburn in-bound to Denver at just a shade past 6AM, but this morning each stop brought a huge volume of Christmas mail to be loaded, so they were running nearly two hours late. Herb Sommers had the big E9's throttle cranked open to try to make up time, streaking towards Denver at that section of line's speed limit of 80 miles per hour.

Three of Duane Harms regular passengers were waiting for him after he finished that last cup of coffee, kissed Judy and Lynda goodbye, and strode out to the idling bus. Their dad had decided that six degrees was far too cold for them to stand outside and wait for the bus, he had to go right past Duane Harms' house on the way to work, and he knew that Duane always cranked the bus up on cold mornings so the kids would have a warm ride when the bus reached their stop. He dropped them off at the bus, and they climbed aboard and grabbed a seat a couple of rows back from the front. A few minutes later Duane climbed aboard the big GMC-Wayne, likely cheerfully greeted his trio of early arrivals, then took the drivers seat, closed the door, put the bus in gear, pulled out, and hung a right. His last run as a school bus driver had begun...and twenty kids had just begun their last hour on this earth.


As Duane Harms drew a big square in the Colorado countryside that cold December morning kids were chattering, and gossiping...greetings, to both the kids already on the bus and to the driver, who was well liked by both kids and parents, were exchanged as each new group climbed aboard. The heater's blower motor...on high to boost heat to the back of the nearly 40 foot long ride...was roaring. At each stop, the motorized flasher for the warning lights kept time with that 'Tick-tick-Tick-tick' that all of us who grew up in the sixties and seventies came to know. At one stop about halfway through the route a lanky 16 year old named Jerry Hembry shouted for Duane to hang on, he was coming, then, as the warning lights ticked at them, ran hell-bent down the drive. He pulled himself up the steps, spun around the vertical chrome bar that supported the privacy panel separating the front seat from the step well and plopped down in the front right-hand seat. Harms probably asked him something to the effect of 'Where are your (Add an affectionately joking adjective) cousins?'.

Jerry likely replied with an equally sarcastic...but still equally affectionate...comment about the two sisters over-sleeping. Greetings were exchanged with the rest of the kids on board Bus #2 as Duane Harms pulled the chrome handle that closed the bus doors, eased off of clutch and brake, and pulled off...

Railroaders (Like the members of a few other professions) tend to do the job because they love the job. And, like the members of those other professions, they know their job like the back of their hand. Herbert Sommers had been taking the City of Denver out and back to Sterling...about 125 or so miles each way...daily for about 4 months now, and had the location and peculiarities of every grade crossing imprinted indelibly in his mind. And at every one, before he even passed the square sign with a big 'W' painted on it...the point where he had to start blowing for a crossing...he was supposed to reach up, grab a wood-dowel tipped cord and pull it, pulling and releasing to blast the E9's multi-chimed air horn in the pattern that all of us...without even realizing it...know by heart...

'WOOOOOOOOOOOONK...WOOOOOOOOONK...WOONK...WOOOOOOOOOOOOONK!!!'

Notice I said 'Supposed to'. That pattern of horn blasts lets motorists at a grade crossing know that a train's approaching. And it's the series of blasts that a school bus driver was supposed to listen for in that pre-track walker era as he pulled up to a crossing, stopped, and opened the door. Most would reach over and turn or flip the small switch that deactivates the warning lights, silencing the flasher ...a noisy little beast, especially up front where both the ticking of it's relay and the whir of it's electric motor can be heard...and tell the kids to quiet down for a minute or so to make sure he could hear a train blowing for the crossing.

Duane Harms had picked up somewhere between twenty five and thirty kids when he got to the first crossing...the one on CR 45, in the little community of Auburn...and stopped. He opened the doors, looked, saw and heard nothing, and proceeded across. He wasn't even really expecting to see a train. In the four months he'd been driving the bus he hadn't seen one, and the one train that everyone knew came through twice a day...the City of Denver...was usually just about arriving at Denver's Union Station about the time he started his route, having blown through Auburn sometime between 6:00 and 6:15. Of course the train had been late the day before, too...even later, in fact. The Christmas Rush often did that to it's schedule.

From what I could gather, it sounds like Duane's bus route had him hanging a left on C.R. 52 after he came through Auburn, heading east on 52 for a bit picking up more kids as he went, then turning around in a circle drive to head back towards Evans and Greeley. He was about three quarters of the way through his route and under a quarter mile from the evilly-angled railroad crossing where C.R.52 crossed the Union Pacific tracks when he stopped at the foot of a drive leading up to a big, fairly new farm house, the home of the large and energetic Brantner clan, where he usually picked up three of their eight kids...12 year old Bobby, 9 year old Kathy, and 6 year old Mark...but Bobby was the one who'd caught a ride in with his two older brothers so he could ask about a school project. Only Kathy and Mark got on board. They grabbed seats and Duane Harms put the bus in gear and pulled forward...he had one more stop between the Brantners and the crossing...there a ten year old named Jerry Baxter clamored aboard into the welcome heat of the bus' interior. Duane pulled the door shut, released the clutch, and pulled off. The crossing was 900 feet away.

Again, this was a cold morning. A frigid six degree morning with a good heavy dusting of snow hanging around. One of those mornings that coats windshields and windows with something that's not mere 'frost'...it's more like thin layer of ice. The bus defroster had cleared the windshield, and the rear windows were clear, but the side windows on both sides were all but completely frosted over, save for about a two inch wide strip along the top of the windows. It was toasty inside the bus by now...or as toasty as the inside of a school bus ever gets, at any rate...but the frost was thick on the windows, and the heat inside the bus hadn't even put a dent in it. 


 The City of Denver was bearing down on Auburn as Duane Harms pulled away from Jerry Baxter's house. At that same moment Art Larson was driving a delivery truck on CR 45, just over a half mile east of CR 52 as he rolled up to the crossing in Auburn.  He had to go right past the high school in Greeley, so his oldest daughter was riding with him. His youngest daughter Alice as well as his son Steve were aboard Bus #2. Now...remember that familiar Long-Long-Short-Long horn pattern blown at crossings? The one that's blown at every crossing? Here's where we run into a bit of controversy that continues to this very day.

As Art pulled up to the crossing in Auburn he noticed that the truck's passenger side mirror was frosted over...he asked his oldest daughter, Nancy, to roll her window down and scrape it for him. And as she cranked the window down...before she ever reached out to scrape the mirror...they both heard it. The fast approaching deepthroated rumble of diesels and the click-click of steel wheels hitting rail joints. Art eased up a bit further and glanced right to see the headlight glaring from the rounded, yellow prow of The City of Denver's lead engine, bearing down on the crossing fast. He and his daughter watched as the train streaked past, the 'Union Pacific' painted on the sides of the cars no more than an orange blur, windows coalescing into blurred silver gray streaks, the wheels making rapid fire 'click-CLANK click-CLANK click-CLANK's as they passed over the rail joints. Art's head swiveled left, following the train. He saw the bus sitting at the CR 52 crossing, actually looking at the back of the bus because of CR 52's extreme angle, and it's brake lights were glowing red at him...a fact that he made a mental note of. It took a shade under ten seconds for the train to clear the crossing...as the rounded rear end of the City of Denver's observation car cleared the crossing, Art eased forward, and headed for Greeley.

Note that at no time did Art Larson or his daughter hear the brassy bray of diesel locomotive airhorns...a sound that's pretty hard to miss. As he eased across the tracks, the front end of Union Pacific locomotive 955 was just about 10 seconds away from the crossing at County Road 52...

Alice and Steve Larson had swapped seats a couple of minutes before their dad glanced down the tacks and saw the bus sitting at the crossing. As the bus stopped at the Brantners' Alice slid out of her seat near the back of the bus, walked forward, and sat next to a young lady named Mary Lozano. Kathy Brantner slid into the seat next to them. A trio that I have a feeling was a bit like a younger, tween girl version of The Three Musketeers was now complete. Only one of the three would survive the next few minutes. Meanwhile, as Alice walked forward, Steve Larson moved to the back of the bus and plopped down near several of his friends...all sitting in those seats that straddle the rear wheel wells Also near the back of the bus, seven year old Debbie Stromberger had finally gotten her galoshes off. Near her, six year old Sherry Mitchell sat, looking royally pissed as well as sad...she had wanted to stay home so she could go visit her dad at the hospital. Her mom had vetoed that idea.

Duane pulled up to the crossing, stopping forty or fifty feet back...well within guide-lines and law in The State of Colorado (And indeed every other state in The Union). But he had a problem...several of them. First, to see down the tracks he had to turn his head and look back over his right shoulder, actually looking through the right side windows of the bus, which of course, were nearly completely frosted over save for that two inch strip at the top edge, cleared by the heat gathering at the upper part of the bus. Then there were the telephone poles lining the tracks. Because of the extreme angle of the road, an optical illusion made the poles appear to be closer together than they actually were...more like the pickets in a picket fence, creating a very definitely obstacle to seeing something like, say, an oncoming train.

He eased to a stop, brakes squealing faintly. (ALL school bus brakes squealed back then...trust me on this), lifted himself as high as he could, and craned his head around, looking back over his shoulder to look through the windows. All he could see was frost, and a two inch strip of day-light. The kids chattered and talked and laughed behind him...he reached for the door lever and pulled it towards him, folding the bus doors open. A wall of cold air poured in through the open door. It wouldn't surprise me if someone good naturedly yelled for him to close the door. He looked out of the door as the warning lights...triggered by the door opening...ticked at him. He may or may not have flipped the switch that cut them off.

All he could see were telephone poles. He strained his ears, listening for an airhorn, then looked at Jerry, asking him if he heard anything. Jerry noted that he didn't, then leaned around the door frame, looking out of the door, and reported that he couldn't see anything either. Someone again possibly yelled, possibly fractionally less good naturedly, for him to close the door, possibly inquiring if he was trying to freeze the bunch of them.

The only train that was due to come through here anywhere within a couple of hours of 8AM was The City of Denver, and it should have gone through a couple of hours ago. Duane sighed, pulled the door closed, and let his foot up off of the clutch.

Herb Sommers watched as a school bus approached the crossing, moving slowly as The City of Denver gobbled up track at 115 feet per second Across the cab, fireman Melvin Swanson said 'I sure hope he stops....'

And as both watched in horror, the bus rolled onto the tracks...

As the bus rolled forward, the kids on board continued their chatter and laughter, a few studying for tests or finishing up homework, none even thinking about the railroad crossing...they crossed two of them, twice a day. There had never been a train. Then again, Jerry Hembry had never sat in the front seat, either. He usually sat a few rows back, closer to the middle of the bus, but this morning he was hard by the stepwell as the bus pulled forward. If asked today, Jerry probably couldn't tell you what made him either wipe the fog that formed on the inside of the window as the frost finally began melting, or drop the upper pane of the window...but when he did so and glanced out of his window, his blood ran cold as, for a millisecond, his brain refused to accept as fact what his eyes were telling it. The piercing yellow eye of a headlight, shining from the rounded nose of a bright yellow and gray locomotive, the winged 'Union Pacific' seal across the front of it probably looking like it was as big as the bus, really really close and bearing down on them really really fast...

TRAIN!!!!!!!!!”

High up in the cab of the lead engine, Herb Sommers grabbed a horizontal brass lever and slammed it back as far as it would go, throwing the brakes into full emergency...air dumped and brake shoes pressed against 176 steel wheels...but the brakes barely began to grab...

Jerry had instinctively grabbed the chrome bar atop the privacy panel with both hands even as he saw the train bearing down on them and yelled. The 35 other kids barely had time to comprehend what he'd yelled before the rounded nose of the lead engine...still moving at a bare fraction under 80...slammed explosively into the back of the bus. Because of the angle of the crossing, the train all but rear ended Bus # 2, the middle of the engines front end catching the right side of the bus between the back wheels and the back of the bus with an explosive 'CRUMP!!!!.

The force of the collision was cataclysmic, and a few dozen things, none of them good, happened in the same millisecond. The rear body of the bus tore away from it's mounts while the body mounts further forward bent, stretched...but held firm. The last ten or so feet of the body...now unsupported and deformed beyond imagination...ripped away jaggedly along body panel seams and wrapped itself around the nose of the locomotive even as the left side of the torn away rear end split apart. This rear few feet contained four seats, and the kids in those seats were all ejected from the bus explosively...

The rear axle and wheels ripped loose and bounced across the snowy field next to the track as the shattered rear body rode the front of the locomotive...part of it dragging and bouncing along ties and rail...for 419 feet before spinning away and bouncing a couple of times to land upright on the south side of the tracks. The front section of the bus, with the mangled frame rails protruding from the truncated back end like a pair of broken buck teeth, spun violently and began rolling. Duane Harms probably went through the windshield, which, just as it was designed to do, popped out in one piece. Jerry Hembry was thrown all the way from front to rear and out of the chasm where the rear ten or so feet of the bus used to be. Almost all of the other kids in the front section were also thrown clear, only a few riding the shattered vehicle as it rolled, finally landing on it's right side 191 feet from the crossing, on the north side of the tracks. The kids who managed to stay with the shattered hulk were among the least seriously injured.

It took just about four seconds for dozens of lives to be forever altered...four seconds between the instant that the front end of Locomotive 955 bit deeply into the back end of the bus and the second that the City of Denver came to a stop. Several seconds of near silence, broken only by the squealing of train brakes and ticking of the cooling bus engine, followed the explosive collision, then moans and cries and calls for help rose from the wreckage. Duane Harms and Jerry Hembry, both among the least injured of the bus' occupants, came to and got to their feet first. Jerry found himself lying partially in a snowy ditch with the bodies of several kids...kids he knew...lying around him. He pulled himself to his feet and spotted several kids either standing as if in a daze or trying to walk away, heading for home. Jerry gathered them into a group, picking one up (Despite a shattered collarbone), took the hand of a little girl, and started walking towards a nearby farm house. Duane Harms regained consciousness on the ground in front of the bus, at first not realizing what had happened...then he saw the front half of the bus, lying on its side. He dragged himself to his feet, and walked around the hulk, seeing several things at once...the rear end of the bus was gone, there was a crumpled mass of metal painted the exact same color as the bus several hundred feet away on the other side of the tracks, and several hundred feet beyond that, the rounded rear end of The City of Denver's observation car, with the train stretching beyond it...stopped. And the horrible realization of just what had just happened...and, far worse, what he had just done...slammed into him like a belly punch from a giant.

Albert Bindel had just missed being an eye witness. He lived just down from the crossing...between it and the Brantner farm...and had actually seen the bus' brake lights glowing at him as it sat stopped at the crossing, but he went inside to gather his three kids and get them in the car so he could take them into Greeley to the Catholic school they attended, there-by missing the crash (A fact that he was likely forever grateful for). He loaded his kids in the car, pulled out of the drive and headed for Greeley...and the crossing. As he approached the crossing his eyes saw a sight that his brain just refused to even process for an instant or two, much less believe...the battered, truncated hulk of the bus, lying on it's side. He foot stabbed the brakes, slammed the car into reverse, and three-point turned in the middle of the gravel road, spinning tires as he headed back towards his farm. He shooed his kids back inside, yelled for his wife to call it in, then hauled ass back to his car, taking off and heading first for the Brantner farm, where he found Joe Brantner (Who had also come with-in a hairs-breadth of witnessing the crash) and told him what had happened. Seconds later the two of them were making what had to have been one of the longest quarter mile drives that anyone has ever had to make.

The first notification went to the Colorado Highway Patrol and the Greeley County Sheriff's department, and within five minutes of the crash CHP unit 19 was dispatched to the scene of an 'Accident with injuries, possibly a school bus hit by a train'. CHP Officer Don Girnt very likely called for the troops even as he spun his Plymouth around on U.S. 85, flipped his lights on, and thumb pressed the horn ring, winding the siren out as he raced towards C.R. 52 and the tracks. He'd make the run in 6 minutes.

The two towns closest to the crossing were Kersey and LaSalle, and in both towns the peace and quiet of a frigid December morning was shattered as their VFDs' house sirens wound up to a howl, the cold clear air letting the rise-and-fall wail drift out far beyond the town limits. Of course, this was fifty-three years ago. If this same incident had happened in, say 2010, the words 'School bus hit by a train' would have had several pumpers that were also equipped with rescue equipment, at least one heavy rescue, and several Advanced Life Support ambulances heading for the scene on the initial alarm. Likely everyone responding would have been an EMT or higher. And the first out rigs from both Kersey and LaSalle, if I'm not mistaken, would have been manned by a salaried crew.

Things were different back in 1961, though. Both fire companies were still all volunteer, so it took a few minutes to get the rigs on the street. There was no such thing as true prehospital care, unless you were lucky enough to have a Doctor or an R.N either as a member of the rescue squad or willing to ride on a bad call. Generally, though, 'Prehospital Care' consisted of an ambulance with a big engine, capable of getting the patient to the hospital quickly. Rescue equipment was still basically hand tools assisted by railroad jacks, come-a-longs, and porta-powers. Wreckers were used to disentangle trapped patients.

On December 14th, 1961, Kersey responded with a 1955 GMC pumper, a converted bread truck as the rescue, and a converted hearse for an ambulance. I wasn't able to find out what kind of equipment LaSalle had at the time, but it was probably equivalent. I have a feeling that both Greeley and Evans also sent at least ambulances if not also a couple of engine companies. By the time rigs started arriving Joe Brantner was already taking care of business.

Joe Brantner had his heart shattered minutes after arriving at the scene when he all but literally stumbled over the bodies of two of his children...nine year old Kathy and twelve year old Mark. He said a prayer over the bodies of his children, looked around at the injured children lying in the snow, and told Al to take him back to his farm so he could grab his station wagon...he was back in something under five minutes (Just after Trooper Girnt rolled in)...he backed the wagon in close to the scene, dropped the tail gate, and started loading injured children on board.
He headed for the hospital with five of them, four critically injured...he was heading for the hospital well before the first fire unit or ambulance rolled in.

Joe Brantner wasn't the only parent to roll up on the scene early into the incident, nor the only one to suffer the agonizing heartbreak of finding the body of their own children. Jim and Loretta Ford were on the way into Greeley and ran up on it just about the time Joe Brantner returned with his station wagon...they had three kids, all typically rambunctious boys, on the bus, and they found the body of the oldest...thirteen year old Jimmy...between the tracks and the road minutes after they bailed out of their car. Their youngest son, Bruce, was lying nearby, unconscious but breathing. And even as they prayed over their two children, Jim Ford looked over at the shattered front end of the bus to see their middle son...Glenn...climb out of the wreckage, relatively unscathed. Glenn was bruised, cut, missing his front teeth, and temporarily blinded by cinders and debris that ended up in his eyes, though, and would be one of the kids that Joe Brantner transported.

Another of the kids that Joe Brantner transported would be Alice Larson, who swapped seats with her brother only minutes before the crash. Alice was critical, with serious internal injuries. Her parents were the third set of parents to roll up on the accident soon after it happened. Juanita Larson would ride in with her daughter...and wouldn't find out that Joe Brantner had lost two of his own children until they arrived at the hospital.

They also carefully carried Nancy Alles...suffering from fractured vertebrae, among other injuries...to the Brantner station wagon. Her sister Linda wasn't as lucky...she was one of the twenty children killed in the accident. Her brother survived because he was the one with a dentist appointment that morning.

Allan Stromberger was also suffering from spinal injuries and was also transported by Joe Brantner. His little sister Debbie, who struggled with her galoshes in one of the rear seats of the bus only minutes before the crash, would be the only child from the rear section of the bus to survive.

Just thinking about transporting any of these kids in the back of a station wagon, without any spinal immobilization what so ever, would likely get an EMT or Cardiac Tech's certification yanked this day and time. But it worked...all five kids survived. Nance Alles, when told that she'd never walk again, told the doctor that he was lying then preceded, several weeks later, to walk out of the hospital.

News of the accident sped across the community like wild fire as people learned about it, then called friends who they knew might have kids on the bus, and dozens of parents descended on the scene, frantic with worry, searching for their own kids until Sheriff's Deputies and State Troopers set up a perimeter and moved them back. Ambulances and fire rigs arrived on scene, and the crews, with the resources they had at the time, went to work and in something a bit less than an hour all of the injured had been transported. The old armory in Greeley was set up as a temporary morgue, and the bodies of twenty dead children (A two word phrase that should never have to be spoken or written) were transported there to be identified. And, ten days before Christmas, a town's heart snapped in two.

Herb Sommers backed the train closer to the scene, part of his crew heading for the shattered bus to offer whatever assistance they could while Trooper Girnt met Sommers and got a statement from him. Sommers, for the first of several times, made a statement that's been more than a little controversial to this day. He swore that he had indeed sounded the train's horn, and that the bus, though moving slowly, hadn't stopped. An hour after The City of Denver slammed into Bus # 2, Herb Sommers was cleared to take it into Denver, with a promise that he and his crew would be back in Greeley for a Coroners Hearing that afternoon.

Duane Harms was among the least injured of the bunch...the laws of physics saved him as the drivers seat, being the furthest from the impact and the approximate pivot point of the bus's spin, caught the least force from the collision. Keep in mind that 'Least Force' is a relative term here. Remember, the front half of the bus rolled and somersaulted for nearly 200 feet. He was patched up at the hospital...a nasty cut on one leg and a few dozen bruises and abrasions...and taken to the sheriffs department for an official statement. And the controversy started. Of course he couldn't remember the accident itself, or the few moments immediately preceding it...he'd had his bell rung pretty completely. But he was pretty sure he had stopped the bus, despite what Herb Sommers said.

Ahhh, the coroner's inquest, held at 1:45 that afternoon at the Weld County Courthouse (Meaning that Herb Sommers and the rest of the crew of The City of Denver had to hustle a little bit to get back in time). The only ones who were present to testify were four members of the train's crew, and Al Bindel, the farmer who'd been getting ready to take his kids to school when he almost witnessed the crash.

Bindel testified that he was absolutely sure the bus had stopped...but admitted that, due to the angle he was looking at it from and the distance, there was a possibility that it could have been moving slowly. The train crew to a man, testified that the bus entered the crossing at about 5 miles per hour without stopping. Sommers also noted that he had sounded the horn as required, plus a couple of short blasts when he realized the bus wasn't going to stop. The next morning Duane Harms was charged with twenty counts of Involuntary Manslaughter, Bond was set and posted, and a trial date was set. And amid all of the heartache and sorrow, a pretty amazing thing happened...something that likely wouldn't happen today.

The entire community, with a couple of notable and understandable exceptions, rallied around Harms, and they had some pretty good evidence as to why they should do so. That particular crossing was a known hazard, and I have a feeling that everyone had at least silently wondered when...not if...it's completely screwed up sight lines would result in an accident. Jerry Hembrey, from his hospital bed, insisted that the bus had indeed stopped. He also insisted that he had not heard the train's horn. Not from a distance. Not close up. Not at all. And he wasn't the only one...Art Larson and his daughter both swore that they never heard the train's horn.

The support for Harms continued up to the trial (And continues, posthumously sadly, to this day). The general consensus was that it was an unavoidable accident (I have to disagree on that point) and that he had suffered enough from guilt and heartache of having been responsible for the death of twenty children. Petitions were signed and letters of support written and delivered to the court, asking that he not be charged...or, once he was charged, that the charges be dropped. I have a feeling that seating a jury that hadn't heard about the case (And who didn't already have an opinion) was just shy of impossible. Of course the hinge-point of the case was whether or not Harms had indeed stopped at the crossing, opened the door as required, and listened for the train...back then that was literally all that was required at any crossing in any state.

The trial took place in March of 1962, at the Greeley County Courthouse, and lasted for four days, during which more of the same testimony that was heard at the Coroners Inquiry the day of the accident was heard...just in more detail. Of course, this time Jerry Hembry was there to swear, under oath, that Duane Harms did indeed stop the bus before driving into the crossing. And Herb Sommers still testified that the bus didn't stop, also testifying that he did sound his horn. Meanwhile both Art Larson and his daughter Linda were there to testify that they never heard the horn.

Harms was the final defense witness, and his testimony perfectly matched the statement he'd given the Weld Count District Attorney three months earlier...he was almost sure he'd stopped and opened the bus door, as required by law. And he was sure that he did indeed listen for a train...specifically for the horn, and heard nothing. He couldn't remember for sure because the memory of the crash itself, as well as the couple of minutes preceding it was entirely blank.

The jury got the case after four days of testimony, and deliberated pretty much overnight before returning a Not Guilty verdict...of course if you think this was the end of problems for Duane Harms (Or, indeed, anyone ) you're way off. A couple of civil suits were filed (A mere fraction of a fraction of what would have been filed this day and time) and settlements were made in all. Then he had to deal with his guilt and regret, and the opinions of the minority that didn't support him. Almost the entire populace of the area may have supported him, but that doesn't count for much when a couple of irate fathers who had lost children showed up at his house to make their dislike for him known...and yes that did happen, and thankfully for all involved, words were all that were exchanged. Within a few months of the accident, Duane Harms had packed up Judy and Lynda and moved to California to get away from both the negative vibes and his own guilt. He never really managed to get completely away from either.

Then there were the parents. Twenty sets of parents had lost at least one child, four sets of parents had lost two children, and three of those families were tragically and completely decimated when they lost their only two children. Several sets of cousins were among the kids that died...meaning that several parents lost not only a son or daughter, they also lost a niece or nephew.

Sixteen kids were injured, with the injuries ranging from a few cuts and bruises to critical, life threatening injuries. In several cases a family had lost one child and had another in the hospital clinging to life. Christmas all but came to a stop in Weld County in 1961.

AN interesting facet of life back than (And one that I remember well, though thankfully I never had to deal with anything that even approached the outskirts of being this tragic) is the complete lack of grief counseling for the kids. The general consensus was that the best way to get over something was to...well, get over it. To basically suck it up and go ahead with life. We know now, of course, that emotional trauma doesn't just go away...all of the surviving kids on Bus #2 as well as their parents were affected by this to some extent, and the majority of those who are still around will tell you that it still affects them to one extent or the other to this very day. A tragedy of this nature stays with you. You may not think about it daily, or even for weeks or months at a time, but it's always just under the surface, waiting for something as simple as seeing a bus sitting at a rail crossing to bring it back to the surface.

 Another effect of the accident...one often not thought about...was the kids who missed the bus...many of them suffered from survivors guilt, and some still do to this day. Collean and LaDean Yetter...the two sisters who overslept and missed the bus...are good examples of this. Both girls ended up at the scene when their parents went to pick Jerry up from the farmhouse he'd taken several of the children to, saw the wrecked bus, then spent a long, torturous day at the hospital wondering about their friends, only to find out that they had lost many of them. And the ' Why did I live and my friends not' thoughts began. This kind of guilt can be rough on an adult. Collean and LaDean were both under 12.

Many surviving siblings also felt the pangs of Survivors Guilt (And interestingly, some siblings born after the accident also felt a form of the same type of guilt.) And, once again, psychological effects on children (And anyone else for that matter) resulting from being involved in an ultra-traumatic incident such this were dealt with using the ineffective, and probably damaging 'Suck it up and deal with it' philosophy. This wasn't intentionally abusive, of course...it was just, sadly, the way things were done back then. I remember being told not to worry about things affecting my friends back in that same era (The phrase my dad would use was 'It's none of your business'). Of course, as it wasn't ever anything remotely close to this level of tragedy I can't even begin to identify with any of the survivors of the bus crash. As for Collean, LaDean, and any of the then-kids who survived, most if not all will tell you it affects them...some of them deeply...to this very day.

The Brantner family was arguably, affected the most by the bus crash...they lost two of their children in the accident, and it seems a cloud of tragedy hung over them for quite awhile...and if it was any family that absolutely didn't deserve this it was this very religious, faithful, and hard working family.

Only seven weeks or so after the bus crash...before Duane Harms' trial had even started...the two oldest Brantner kids, sixteen year old Johnny and fourteen year old Jimmy, were on the way to school in Johnny Brantners Chevy, when a pick-up blew a stop sign. Johnny Brantner stood on the brakes, but still broadsided the pick-up at highway speed. He was ejected, and died shortly after reaching the hospital. Younger brother Jimmy was trapped in the car with critical injuries.

Before the numbness and despair of December 14th had even begun to ease up even a little, Joe and Katherine Brantner were again getting that phone call that every parent dreads, then rushing to the hospital, fearing for the lives of two more of their kids. Jimmy survived, but with debilitating injuries, and to add a twilight-zoneesque feeling to the accident, Bobby Brantner cheated death a second time that morning. He'd ridden with Johnny and Jimmy every morning since the bus crash...but Joe Brantner finally decreed that he had to ride the bus. His older brothers had to go too far out of their way to drop him off at school. The morning Johnny was killed...Feb 7th, 1961...was the first morning Bobby rode the bus.

A year or so after the bus crash, Joe Brantner would donate a good sized chunk of his property for a project. The project? That short stretch of C.R. 52 between that curves away from the tracks and 'T's into CR 43, bypassing the severely angled crossing where the bus crash occurred and allowing traffic on CR 52 to cross at the already existing crossing on County Road 43. CR 43 crosses the tracks, BTW, at nearly a right angle...as it should be. The old crossing was removed, and the original stretch of CR 52 between the crossing and CR 43 was plowed under and became part of the field next to the tracks.

Within a few months of the accident Weld County Colorado put a policy in place that an adult...hired for the purpose as a 'Bus Aide'...would 'Walk The Tracks' at each and every railroad crossing, and the bus would not move until the aide waved him across. School districts across the nation put similar policies in place...my home county of Southampton County, Virginia being one of them. To be honest, I'm not sure that the policy ever became state law anywhere (And I'm being a scosh lazy because I haven't really researched it that deeply) but I've been told that the policy is still in effect in numerous rural school districts throughout the country.


<***> Notes, Links, And Stuff<***>



The other posts in this series
in the order they were posted.



March 1972

October 1971

August 1976


http://disasteroushistory.blogspot.com/2015/02/conasauga-tennesee-bustrain-crash.html  Conasauga Tenn.  March 2000

http://disasteroushistory.blogspot.com/2016/03/sandy-utah-bus-train-crashthe-worst.html   Sandy, Utah Dec 1938

http://disasteroushistory.blogspot.com/2016/03/proberta-california-train-bus-crash.html  Proberta, California Nov 1921

http://disasteroushistory.blogspot.com/2016/02/shreve-ohio-and-berea-ohio-school.html  Shreve and Berea Ohio Jan. 1930

http://disasteroushistory.blogspot.com/2016/03/crescent-city-florida-trainschool-bus.html  Crescent City, Florida December 1933

http://disasteroushistory.blogspot.com/2016/03/rockville-md-train-bus-crash-april-11th.html  Rockville, Maryland April 1935

http://disasteroushistory.blogspot.com/2016/03/mason-city-iowa-bus-train-crash.html  MAson City, Iowa Oct. 1937

http://disasteroushistory.blogspot.com/2016/03/eads-tennessee-trainschool-bus-crash.html Eads, Tennessee Oct. 1941



<***>


This post turned into a project of some magnitude...I started off intending to post about the Evans crash...and the Evans bus crash only. Then, as I researched, and went back over my list of potential subjects for this blog, I realized just how many schoolbus-train collisions there have been over the last 110 years and change. Far Far too many of them. So I decided to do something a little different with this series of posts...and that's exactly it..It's going to be a two part series of posts, all sent out into the interwebs at the same time, both remembering the incidents and their young victims, and following the evolution of both the laws dealing with school bus safety at grade crossings as well as a minor study on how such incidents have been handled over the years. And yes, I may speculate, as I'm a bit prone to do, here and there. The fact that I don't have much sympathy for anyone who, through ignorance or idiocy, puts a bus load of children in front of an oncoming train just might peek through as well. That's the nice thing about blogs...you don't have to be impartial, and you can voice your opinion.

I'm doing this in two parts, with the first series of posts covering the period from 1955 to 2000, and the second part, a couple of months down the road, covering the period from roughly 1930 to 1954.


<***>

You'd think, with this accident being Colorado's worst traffic accident, being as horrific as it was, and occurring in fairly modern times, there would be reams of information about it on the web.

Guess what gang...there isn't. There are incidents and accidents of all kinds that occurred nearly a century earlier with so much information available on line that you can pick and choose what you want to use as research for a post such as this. The Evans Colorado Bus Crash, however, has very little info on the web,...not even comparatively, but very little, period. It's as if Colorado, the country, and the world just wanted to forget about it.

If it wasn't for an outstanding series of articles written about the accident for a now defunct newspaper, this post would have been a couple of paragraphs long, using information from a genealogy site that archives newspaper articles about disasters from the past. (The very same site that I use, among other sources, to hunt for subjects for this blog)

With that thought in mind, before I do anything else I need to acknowledge Kevin Vaughan, the author of 'The Crossing', a 34 part series on the accident that was published in the now defunct Rocky Mountain News back in early 2007. This was not only a very thorough, yet sensitive and respectful account of the tragedy and the effect it and on the victims and families, it was my primary source of facts and information for this post.

A blog on the paper's site also carried information about the series, as well as hundreds of comments, several from family members of the kids on the bus...most notably Mary Brantner, who was an infant when her brother and sister died in the accident. I'm forever grateful to all for the reams of information and correct facts that these two sources provided.

Of course, with 'The Rocky', as residents of Colorado called the paper, out of business I had to dig a little to find The Crossing's text, and finally found all but a couple of installments thanks to 'The Way-back Machine' web archive. The one thing I couldn't find, anywhere, were pictures of the scene...but that's not necessarily a bad thing at all. I think the descriptions given in The Crossing and the comments from The Rocky's blog were more than enough. It's not the type of image I'd want to have in my mind for any length of time. I've included links to both the blog, and 'The Crossing' below.

<***>
While the Evans accident was horrific in it's own right, it was not the worst school bus/train accident on record...that highly dubious distinction belongs to the Sandy, Utah bus/train crash, which occurred on December 1st, 1938, killing 25 students and the bus driver, making it not only the worst school bus/train crash in U.S. history, but the worst grade crossing accident of any kind in U.S. History. In a strange twist of both history and fate,The Sandy and Evans accidents, separated by twenty-three years, share a striking number of similarities:

>Both occurred in December, in small towns in the Western U.S.
>Both occurred in the morning,while the bus was on the way in to school.
>There was snow on the ground at both scenes.
>Both occurred at unsignalled crossings.
>The chassis of both buses were built by GMC (Known as General Motors Truck Corp back in The Thirties)
>The bus windows were fogged over in both cases
>The driver actually did stop the bus short of the crossing in both cases...then proceeded after not seeing the oncoming train.
>A passenger sitting in the front seat of the bus saw the train and shouted 'TRAIN!!!' an instant before the collision in both accidents.
>In both accidents the driver was known to be very responsible, making it all the more puzzling that he drove in front of a train.

<***>


There have, sadly, been way more than a few train-school bus accidents over the years...167 between 1902 and 2015, with the most recent happening only a couple of weeks ago as I get ready to post this, and I've found information on about 20 or so of them while searching out subjects for this series of blog posts. Among them were a pair of accidents in Alabama, in January and March of 1960...nearly two years earlier...that were eerily similar to the Evans Bus Crash, .

The first was in Fackler Alabama, in far northeastern Alabama's Jackson County . Very similar circumstances...A rural dirt road, slow moving school bus, and a driver who claimed that he never saw the train that hit them, though he cited 'the brakes giving out' as the reason he couldn't or didn't stop. And, just as happened at Evans, the bus was torn in two by the crash, with the rear portion of the bus being dragged nearly three quarters of a mile. This time the bus had 17 aboard counting the driver. Four of the kids were killed, two of them not only brothers but nephews of the driver as well, while the other two were a brother and sister.

The driver not only stated that the brakes failed, he said that they had failed 'Numerous times' in the time he'd been driving it. The school board's superintendent, quoting the system's chief mechanic, said that the bus had undergone preventative maintenance within the past couple of months, and was in good shape. Brakes included. I'll let everyone come to their own conclusions on what actually happened.

Not much info on The Web about this one, though I did find bits enough bits and pieces on a couple of genealogy sites to get the location and general gist of what happened. There are a couple of reasons why the accident didn't garner the same interest as the Evans crash. There were fewer killed, a mechanical failure (True or not) was cited as the cause, and the bus (A 1951 model) being nearly ten years old lent some credence to the 'Brakes Failed' story, leaving no lessons to be learned that weren't already known.

Interestingly the crossing where the accident happened...which is still in place, on Jackson County Road 169, hard by County Road 45...is to this day still only protected by a cross buck sign and stop sign with no lights or gates. The area...like that around Auburn, Colorado...is still extremely rural.

The second one occurred on March 22, 1960 on the opposite end of the state, in the Wilcox County community of Coy, Alabama. Despite the fact that, with 8 fatalities, the death toll was twice that of the Fackler accident there is all but nothing on the web about it. I was able to find out that it occurred in the afternoon on a rural road at another unsignaled crossing and that the bus (An very late Forties or early fifties GMC or Chevy) was hit just about broadside on the right side by a freight train and pretty much ripped apart.. I got this info thanks to a single captioned A.P. picture on a site that has the images for sale for far more than I was willing to spend to post it here. Interestingly enough, I discovered that picture...and this crash...while searching out information on the Fackler bus crash.

It can be pretty well assumed that in the Coy bus crash the bus driver either didn't see or hear the train, or thought he could beat it...unfortunately no information about the cause of the crash was included. And...sadly...I think I know why very little info is available about this one. 1960 was still very much the era of segregation in the Deep South. I'll let my readers make their own conclusions from that single statement.

It should be noted, though, that the law requiring school bus drivers to stop, look, and listen at RR crossings had been in place for several years by 1960, but apparently some drivers just weren't getting the message.. (The accident that finally spear-headed a move to make it a Federally Mandated Law will be covered next in this series of posts).

<***>


As to why Duane Harms never heard The City of Denver's horn and therefore pulled onto the crossing after stopping (And yes, number me among those who think he did indeed stop)...I have a theory. Obviously I wasn't there, and I could be way out in left field, but I don't think Herb Sommers blew Locomotive 599's air horn that fateful morning...not anywhere near the crossing, or the one a half mile or so east of it at County Road 45 at any rate. Too many people said they didn't hear it...and I'm inclined to believe that if they say they didn't hear it, it's because it wasn't being blown for them to hear. Those big, multi-chime air horns carry a long long way....I regularly hear trains blowing for a crossing that's a good mile and change from my house.

Now, as to just why Herb Sommers didn't blow the horn in the required approaching crossing pattern, I don't think it had anything to do with incompetence or laziness...Herb Sommers had been an engineer for 20 years and a railroad employee for 43 years, so he knew the Union Pacific's policy and procedure manuals backward and forward. And sounding the horn wasn't exactly a major expenditure of effort...you reached up and over to the left, grab the wooden dowel on the end of the whistle cord, and give it a yank.

But he was just as prone as any of us, you and me included, to a little fault named complacency. The City of Denver normally went through a bit after 6AM, before anyone's really on the road in a farming community such as Auburn. Also, there are several grade crossings, one right after the other on that stretch of track...back in '61 there were three within a mile right at Auburn...the one at CR 45, in Auburn itself, the fatal crossing at CR 52, and the one at CR 43, which meant that he would have been sounding that Long-Long-Short-Long all but constantly from the time he approached Auburn until he was well past the fatal crossing at C.R. 52...trust me on this, someone would have heard that horn if he was sounding it constantly for nearly a full minute.

Two things probably happened...One, he sounded the horn for one of the crossings before he got to CR 45 (There were several east of Auburn as well), and knowing there was usually absolutely no traffic on those back roads when he came through, and that people were either still asleep or just stirring, didn't subject them to the afore mentioned minute or so long airhorn concert. So it's quite possible that he didn't blow the airhorn out of a  misplaced sense of politeness. Of course, on this particular morning, he was coming through Auburn nearly two hours later than normal, and there were people up, out, about, and on the roads.

 This takes us to 'Thing Two'...Sommers and his fireman were likely carrying on a conversation as they approached CR 52, possibly even about the bus, because I think it's more than possible that, as he approached the crossing at CR 45, he saw the bus stopped...Art Larson saw it from the CR 45 crossing. The bus would have probably been visible, from an extreme ¾ angle from the right rear, making the glowing brake lights visible. And, seeing the bus stopped, Sommers assumed that the driver saw him and was going to stay stopped...then turned his head for the theoretical few seconds to make a comment to his fireman.

Remember, The City of Denver was moving at 79 miles per hour...round it up to 80, and they were rolling along at 115 feet or so every second. If he glanced over towards his fireman...looking away from the windshield...for four seconds, he's just covered a little less than two football fields since he crossed CR 45, and before he looked up again. By the time he looked up he was less than a quarter mile.. between 1000-1200 feet lets say...from the crossing, and the bus is moving.

When they do see it moving a few seconds later, Sommers and the fireman maybe both at first think that he's just moved up a little to better be able to see down the tracks. A few seconds later they realize he isn't stopping... they're maybe 500-600 feet away. If the bus is moving at 5 miles per hour as it crosses (Not at all unlikely on the rough country road crossings of that era...we had 'em in Virginia, too.) it was moving at about 7 feet per second. If the bus is 35 feet long that's five seconds for it to clear the crossing. They were about a quarter way across when Jerry Hembry cleared his window, turned his head and stared straight into the train's headlight...by then the City of Denver was probably a football field or so away from them, though it looked like it was even closer. This is also possibly where Herb Sommers threw the brakes into emergency. Duane Harms may have punched it to try to clear the tracks...but, as school buses traditionally have the pep and acceleration of a cruise ship, that was all but a pointless gesture. When Jerry yelled 'TRAIN!!!', Herb Sommers yanked the brake valve into emergency, and Duane possibly punched it, the City of Denver was about three seconds away from them.

They almost made it across...the front of locomotive #599 tore into the very back of the bus...the last 63 inches. Five feet and three inches. If they had had another second or so...if the bus had been going two miles an hour faster, or if Sommers had slammed the City of Denver's brakes into full emergency the instant he realized the bus was moving...all it would have been was a close call.

And sadly, yes I believe that Sommers lied, under oath, about the bus not stopping, and about sounding the City of Denver's horn. One of the survivor's relatives grandfather was not only a Union Pacific employee, but was involved in the U.P.'s investigation into the crash.. Years later she found a bound report on the investigation, and read it. Though she threw it away, not wanting to stir up an old hornets nest, she stated that it was pretty damning for the City of Denvers' crew. Her theory was that they were coached as to what their testimony at both the Coroner's hearing and the trial would be.

<***>

I have all the sympathy in the world for Duane Harms...any of us can make a mistake. And when we do we can only hope and pray it won't be the cataclysmic kind that happened at 7:59 AM on December 14th, 1961. But, while many of Duane Harms supporters stated that the accident was unavoidable, it could have been avoided, though, if you really look at it, you can kind of understand why it wasn't avoided. That complacency that just might be the reason that Herb Sommers didn't sound the City of Denver's horn? Me thinks Duane Harms was suffering from a pretty hefty dose of it as well. He had never encountered a train on his morning run, so he was likely being no more or less cautious than he always was. He, in fact, took an extra step that fateful morning...he asked Jerry Hembry if he heard anything, and Jerry also glanced out of the door, seeing and hearing nothing.

During testimony at his trial, Duane stated that he probably stopped forty or fifty feet back from the tracks...with-in both legal and district policy guide lines...opened the door and listened for a train. Which he probably always did. Remember the poles,and the optical illusion, caused by the crossing's severe angle, that made them into an almost solid wall? Because of that optical illusion, and the fact that he actually had to turn and look over his shoulder to check, if this is where Harms always stopped, he had never been able to see down the tracks towards the east.

There had never been a train...not even a distant head light...at that or any crossing during his morning run and he had opened the door every morning and heard nothing...just as he had this morning...so he had, in his mind, no reason at all to do anything more than he usually did. OF course, looking back with hindsight that's always 20/20, the majority of people hear this story and say 'What was he thinking??? Simple...he was thinking that he couldn't hear a train, and that there had never been a train so there wasn't a train there that morning either.

What's really sad is the fact that the key to avoiding the accident was sitting in the front right passenger seat...if he had said something like 'Jerry, how 'bout running up to the tracks and taking a look', Jerry Hembrey would have done so, seen the fast approaching City of Denver, and all that would have happened as he climbed back on board would have been he or Duane saying something like 'Whoa, The City's' running late this morning!' But again, in Duane's mind, there was no reason to send Jerry to look down the tracks, therefore the thought never occurred, So Jerry stayed in his seat. And Duane did the same thing he'd done at every crossing, twice a day at each, for four months. Listened, heard nothing, and preceded across And the rest is history..

In the blog comments from The Rocky Mountain News several people noted that 'Harms should have gotten out and looked' but that wouldn't have worked either. It was probably against district policy to leave the bus running, loaded, and unattended, so he would have had to have shut the engine off, run up to the crossing, looked, run back, gotten in, started the bus back up, put it in gear, and started rolling. More than enough time for a train that wasn't visible when he looked to suddenly be bearing down on them. Granted and admittedly, the fact that there was a train that morning makes any excuse for not looking himself somewhat moot. But it would have been a pain in the ass to do so, and neither he, nor, very likely, any driver had ever gotten off of the bus themselves to check for a train.

Keep in mind also that this wasn't (And isn't ) the only railroad grade crossing with a seriously screwed up sight line in one direction or the other. And I have a feeling that, until more stringent Federal laws mandating otherwise were put on the books, Duane Harms wasn't the only driver who handled unsignalled, badly aligned crossings this very same way...by simply opening the door and just listening for a train (Again, I'm talking nation-wide...not just in Weld County, Colorado). He was just the one that got caught. And tragically, 36 kids payed the price...20 of them the ultimate price.

<***>

Duane Harms moved to California shortly after he was acquitted of manslaughter in the bus crash, but bad luck still followed him. The family moved to Southern California, where he got a job in the maintenance department of a good sized school district, and Judy Harms got a job teaching elementary school in the same district. Things seemed to be looking up for them until a congenital condition that Judy had inherited reared it's ugly head, and she began to slip into the dark grasp of mental illness. Duane could only watch as she slipped away from him, her body still very much alive, but inhabited by someone that he didn't know. He first had himself named as her conservator, than as her condition worsened and he became unable to care for her, she was institutionalized. And fate still wasn't finished with Duane Harms.

His daughter Lynda had grown up to be a perfectly normal teen...she graduated with the Class of 79, and during her years in So Cal, she'd likely become a typical 'California Girl' and had accumulated a cadre of close friends, as teenage girls are wont to do. One afternoon after she graduated, while she and a friend were out and about in the friends car, the other girl lost control, went off the road, and slammed into a tree, apparently on Lynda's side. Lynda had internal injuries and spent a month in the hospital before coming home to recuperate. She recovered from her physical injuries, but her mental condition began to deteriorate...whether from an undiagnosed head injury, or the same type condition her mom suffered from, triggered in some way by her accident, is unknown. She lived at home, hardly ever going out, for years before, I believe,. she was also ultimately institutionalized.

As for Duane Harms, he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor in the late Summer of 2007. He passed away on November 18th of that same year...finally at peace.

<***>


Herb Sommers died three weeks or so shy of four years after the bus accident...ironically in another grade crossing accident. On November 20th, 1965, just five days before Thanksgiving, Herb Sommers was bringing the City of Denver into Denver on the last leg of it's overnight Denver-Chicago-Denver round trip. He was almost into Denver as he bore down on a signal and gate protected grade crossing at East 96th Ave. The City of Denver had probably slowed from it's cruising speed of 80 down to 40 or 50 as it entered the Denver metro area and approached Denver's Union station, but that's still rolling when you have 900 tons or so of momentum behind you. But this was a signaled, gated crossing...

Lack of common sense is not a new ailment. Even as Herb Sommers watched in disbelief a tanker...freshly loaded with 9000 gallons of gasoline at a tank farm less than a quarter mile east of the crossing...slalomed around the gates and started crossing in front of the train. With a horrified sense of Deja Vue, Sommers slammed the brakes into emergency and the train slid....

It wasn't even close...the rounded nose of the lead locomotive ripped into the tanker broadside, popping it like a balloon, unleashing a tidal wave of gasoline that didn't even have to search real hard for an ignition source.

A fireball engulfed the locomotives and crossing, all 9000 gallons of gas lit off, and only the luck of the Irish and the fact that the area around the crossing wasn't all that built up (And still isn't truth be known) kept this from becoming a conflagration of devastating proportions. The City of Denver, flames rolling from the lead locomotive, slid nearly a mile before it stopped.

The truck's driver was thrown clear, and employees who ran from the tank farm...Denver Products back then...dragged him clear of the burning tanker. He would die from his injuries a week later. DFD's white painted fire rigs descended on the scene to find that they had two fire scenes...the burning tanker and 9000 gallons of burning gasoline at 96th Ave as well as the fully involved lead locomotive almost a mile south, where the train finally drifted to a blazing stop. DFD dumped a multiple alarm assignment on the tanker fire, and sent another assignment to the train fire, which was knocked down fairly quickly. When firefighters entered the cab of the burned out lead locomotive they discovered the bodies of both Herb Sommers and his fireman. Sommers was buried three days later. As If this wasn't tragic enough, four months later his wife of 40+ years, unable to take the grief of losing her husband any longer, took her own life.

<***>

Two years after the bus accident, Delta Elementary School...the school that many of the passengers aboard Bus # 2 that morning were bound for...was replaced by a new elementary school. The school was named 'East Memorial Elementary', in memory of the 20 kids who died in the accident, and a brass plaque, engraved with the names of the children, was placed on the wall in a prominent location, near the school's office.

The school and plaque are still there, though the school's being 'Downgraded' to a K-3rd grade school this (2014-2015) school year.


Plaque near the office at East Memorial Elementary School. The picture to the left of the plaque is a picture of the planting of a Memorial Tree at the school on the 25th anniversary of the accident.

<***>

For decades the plaque in the hall of Memorial Elementary, near the office, was the only memorial to the kids who died in the bus crash, Someone always placed flowers or a wreath on a fence post near the curve where County Road 52 once crossed the tracks, especially around the anniversary of the accident, but there was nothing permanent to mark the site or memorialize the children who had been killed. Tim Geisick, whose mom was Katherine and Joe Brantner's oldest daughter Susan, had never gotten to meet his aunt and uncle...Kathy and Mark Brantner. He had also always wondered just why there was no memorial at the site itself, something he felt was completely unacceptable. He started a movement to have a permanent memorial erected at the site where the accident took place before 'The Crossing' was ever published in The Rocky Mountain News. The publication of the series drew support and contributions, both nationally and internationally, and donations for the monument rolled in from as far away as Germany.

A land owner named Lonnie Bunting donated the land for the memorial site as well as the first 250 dollars, and various local government officials did what they could to smooth out the application and permit processes. The 6500 dollars Tim needed to erect the simple memorial was raised fairly quickly and donations of time, and help in organizing pretty much every facet of erecting it and unveiling were also made, leading to the memorial's dedication on August 27th, 2007.

It consists of a simple but elegant 6 foot granite obelisk with the names of the 20 children and a short paragraph telling about the accident engraved on one face, and stands as a fitting memorial to the twenty children who climbed aboard a school bus for the last time on a frigid December morning a shade over 53 years ago.


The Crossing Memorial


Close-up of the Memorial's obelisk, with the names of the 20 kids who lost their lives inscribed  there-on.

The Twenty Angels of The Crossing



<***>Links<***>


As I noted at the beginning of the 'Notes', there is very little on line about the accident, which doesn't even have it's own Wiki page. I did find a few links other than The Wayback Machine's archive while doing research, (Link to that's immediately below), most about the memorial, or forum threads/blog posts about the accident.


https://web.archive.org/web/20090303043113/http://cfapp2.rockymountainnews.com/crossing/
Wayback Machine internet archive link for Kevin Vaughan's series 'The Crossing.  The great majority of the chapters are searchable, though most of the images don't show up. Just click 'View Chapter XX' at the bottom of each chapter's description. A very interesting read.

https://web.archive.org/web/20140701172125/http://blogs.rockymountainnews.com /rockytalklive/archives/2007/08/test_1.html   Link to the Wayback Machine Internet Archive 's file of the RMN's blog post about the accident, with comments. Another extremely interesting read!

http://www.railroadforums.com/forum/showthread.php?16777-Passenger-train-hit-school-bus-in-1961-Rocky-Mountain-News-33-part-series&s=6c165e2e792271d513de769485fd49c0   Railroad history site forum about the accident...another school bus/train crash in Canada is also discussed.

https://brookewolfephoto.wordpress.com/2008/06/09/the-crossing/  Post from another blog, with the text of Chapter 1 of The Crossing included.

http://www.schoolbusfleet.com/forum/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=15402  Schoolbus Fleet forum post about The Crossing, with the text of one of the chapters (Chapter 27) included.

http://www.greeleyhistory.org/pages/east_memorial.html  East Memorial Elementary School's page about the accident and their memorial.

http://www.denverpost.com/ci_6733512?source=rss    A Denver Post article about the memorial placed in memory of the 20 kids who lost their lives.

https://www.reverbnation.com/peterschaff/song/6889920-bus-driver  Link to a song about the accident, written...but never recorded...by Len Chandler and covered by Peter Schaff. It doesn't do Duane Harms any favors, and, in fact, gets a couple of key facts wrong, but it's still an interesting tribute to the twenty kids who lost their lives in the accident.

Bonus fact...Bob Dylan borrowed the melody of his song 'The Tale of Emmett Till' from this song.

Thanks to fellow Blogger Chris for pointing me to this link!

5 comments:

  1. Kevin Vaughan's series "The Crossing" has been restored to the web with all its embedded content. http://thecrossingstory.com/

    ReplyDelete
  2. Referring to the March 22, 1960 accident in Coy, Alabama, I was looking at the March 23 issue of the Chicago Tribune for more info and on Section One, Page 18, found an eerie, horrific coincidence half a world away:

    "8 Children Killed, 18 Injured in Bus Crash
    MELBOURNE, Australia, March 22 (UPI) - Eight school children were killed and 18 injured Tuesday when a diesel railcar crashed into a school bus at an unguarded crossing near Traralgon, 100 miles east of Melbourne."

    Same number of children killed as in Coy.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Rob, I know it's a while since you wrote this article but thought you might appreciate listening to the song on the web page linked in below:

    https://www.reverbnation.com/peterschaff/song/6889920-bus-driver

    This is a song written about this very train crash. I started looking for it when I heard Bob Dylan mention in an interview that the tune he had used for his song 'The Tale of Emmett Till' was 'borrowed', shall we say, from a singer called Len Chandler, who had used the tune for his own song about this Colorado collision, 'Bus Driver'. I was searching for the song for quite a while, and like information about the crash itself if proved quite illusive, however I did manage to find this one cover, which I imagine does the original justice. As far as I can tell this is the only recording of the song in existence, as Len Chandler never recorded it himself.

    Once I had heard the song I learned from it the date and location of the crash and, wanting to know more about it, came across your article here.

    What is interesting is that this song seems to lay the blame at the feet of the Duane Harms, not Herb Summers, which I found supprising after having read your account of events.
    Whether Len had got his information about the incident from a paper which blamed Duane or what I don't know, but it doesn't seem to do Duane any justice.

    Just thought you might aprreciate it,

    Best regards,

    Chris

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Chris! I've added it to 'Links'. You're right, it didn't do Duane Harms any favors at all...in fact it got one key fact completely wrong, as Duane was actually acquitted of manslaughter.

      Interesting about Bob Dylan ...er...'Borrowing' the melody. I checked out The Tale of Emmett Till on YouTube, and apparently Dylan and Len Chandler knew each other, and Len played melody for Dylan, asking him 'How do you like the chords I used...' Dylan apparently liked them a lot. He actually admits to stealing the melody in the vid (Good naturedly,and apparently with Len Chandler's knowledge and implied blessing).

      Thanks again for bringing these to my attention...and for reading my blog!

      Delete