Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Sandy Utah Bus-train crash...The Worst Crossing accident in U.S.History

Sandy, Utah Train/Bus Crash
Dec 1st, 1938

Sadly, through some combination of ignorance, over-confidence, apathy, negligence, or plain long stupidity, school bus drivers have been driving their buses into the path of oncoming trains since before motorized buses were even thought of, back when 'school buses' were actually horse drawn rigs called Kid Hacks. The very first recorded school bus-train crash occurred near Congers, New York in February of 1902 when one of those horse drawn 'Kid Hacks', bringing a group of high school kids back from a basketball game, was struck by a train after it somehow managed to get caught between manual crossing gates. That first train-school bus crash killed eight kids, two of them sisters. It wouldn't be an isolated event...in the 113 years since, there have been 166 more school bus-train collisions. Thirty-five of them have been fatal.  Students were injured in the great majority of the non-fatal accidents, and many of those injuries were life-changing for the victims.

While that only comes out to about 1.4 such crashes per year you have to remember that we've had stretches of a decade or so without a train-school bus collision recently (The last one before this past January's double fatality accident in North Dakota occurred in 2000) as well as shorter stretches of 2-5 years between crashes here and there. Some years...and decades...though, were really bad, and the Thirties were among the worst of them, with seven recorded multiple fatality bus-train collisions. There's a reason that these always catastrophic accidents were far more common three quarters of a century and more ago that they are now.

That reason? Eighty years ago the great majority of railroad crossings were unprotected, and the law didn't require school bus drivers to stop and actively look and listen for an oncoming train when they rolled up on one. It took, very literally, decades for the law to catch up with technology and both add warning signals to most crossings and mandate that school bus drivers actually stop their vehicles at all crossings, absolutely ensuring that there was no train coming before they even considered moving again.  I know, common sense should tell..hell, demand...that the driver of a bus load of children to do just that. Sadly, common sense isn't so...well...common, and laws often do have to be passed to inspire people to do what should be a no-brainer. With that in mind, while doing the research for these posts it took just about along enough time to drink a cup of coffee for me to realize that one historian or the other credits just about every major bus-train collision from about 1935 on for being the accident that got the ball rolling to get those very laws written, passed, and put in place.

Trust me when I say that sorting that one out hasn't exactly been easy to track down, and to be honest I really haven't even tried to narrow it down to 'The' accident. At this point, in fact, I'm not sure that'd even be possible. And with that thought in mind, the accident in Spring City, Tennessee, in August 1955 does present some pretty convincing evidence that it's the one that finally got laws requiring drivers to stop at railroad crossings and actively look and listen for a train put in place in all fifty states. 

Thing is, there's another accident that some historians claim did the exact same thing almost two decades earlier, in 1938. Oh...and that one still holds the very dubious distinction of being the worst railroad crossing accident in U.S. History.

We're going to roll time back to Thursday Dec 1st, 1938 and head for Sandy Utah, just south of Salt Lake City. Utah is a fascinating state in it's own right. It's the only state in the union where the majority of the residents belong to the same church...most are Mormon...and is home to the Bonneville Salt Flats, one of the Meccas of all car-freaks (Myself included). For fans of early Seventies bubble-gum Pop and music history-philes, Utah is where a guy named Donny Osmond grew up and got his start (Along with his brothers, and his sis Marie).

The state's greatest claim to fame, of course, is the Great Salt Lake...that strangest and saltiest of all of the inland lakes in the U.S. The great majority of Utah's population is packed into an 120 mile long, 40 or so mile wide swath of continuous and all but interconnecting urban and suburban life hard by and to the south of the Great Salt Lake's eastern shore. Back in 1938 that same strip of ground still played host to most of the state's then much smaller population, but the population density was dozens of times lower. Sandy...now home to just shy of 100 K Utahans...had fewer than 1500 residents and Jordan High School...now one of four high schools in Sandy and host to 2300 or so students...only had an enrollment of about four hundred. 

Thirty-eight of those four hundred or so students braved a Utah snowstorm to climb aboard a JHS-bound school bus on that cold, snowy Thursday morning exactly a week after Thanksgiving '38 for what should have been the usual forty-five or so minute ride to school. The bus...a fifty-four passenger 1935 GMC/Superior ...was under the command of 29 year old Farrold Silcox. This, remember, was long before kids got 'Snow Days' when the white stuff was falling, and when Silcox looked out of the kitchen window as he downed a cup of coffee and saw the moderate to light snow falling, he decided he should go ahead and start his bus route. He told his wife just that, and headed out.

Contrary to popular belief (And even news reports of the day) a howling blizzard was not in progress. While it was snowing pretty good as Silcox started his route and the weather south of them was far nastier that it was in Sandy, the Salt lake City-Sandy area was on the edge of the storm, so they missed the worst of it. It was still nasty enough, though, in that 'Aw crap it's freaking snowing' kind of way, so Silcox pulled out of his driveway a good half hour early and several of the kids on Silcox's route would miss the bus because he was early. Remember, this was farm country back then...sugar beet farms to be exact, the area being one of the nation's primary producers of that crop...so a slew of the kids were already up, awake, and in the middle of doing their chores when the bus rolled up an hour or so early. Not only does snow not stop chores from getting done, it often adds to them.  Those chores had to be finished. This was (And still often is) a major part of a farm kid's life. With the kids in the middle of said chores, and therefore not anywhere within hailing distance of 'ready for school', their moms had no choice but to wave the bus on.

The kids that did make the bus climbed on board and greeted Silocx as they did every morning, and as also happened every morning, the kids who were were JHS band members (Several of whom had performed in a concert the night before) piled their instruments up next to the drivers seat. Silcox didn't allow horse-play, shenanigans, loud conversation, or instrument playing, be it good or bad, on his bus at all. These preparations taken care of, the kids moved quietly to their seats and settled in for a cold ride to school.

 Though the bus, like modern buses, was all steel and looked like an early version of what we picture when we think 'school bus' today...right down to the yellow paint...the seats the kids moved to were not laid out the way they are on modern buses. Instead of the double row of seats separated by a center aisle that we're used to today and has been standard since at least the early 40s, there was a single row of double seats running down the center of the bus...straddling the area that would be the aisle in a conventionally laid out bus...while two more rows of seats lined the sidewalls of the ride, with the kids sitting with their backs against the sidewall of the bus...a throw back to the old 'Kid Hacks' and the very earliest motorized school buses.

A page from a 1935 Superior Body school bus brochure. Though this is on a Dodge Chassis rather than a GMC...or back then, General Motors Truck...chassis, the layout's pretty much identical to that of the bus involved in the accident. I love the 'Boy-proof rear emergency door latching mechanism'.   While this was actually a pretty  well built bus body for that era, with all steel construction including the frame, there's absolutely no way it (Or anything else) would stand up to a direct hit by a train.
  There were seats for fifty-four passengers in the bus body's twenty or so foot length and eight foot width (The bus was just over twenty-eight feet long over-all).  It had a GMC straight six, four speed tranny, hydraulic brakes and...remember me saying they settled in for a cold ride a paragraph or two back?...no heater. As far as the kids were concerned, that one was a biggie. Though they probably didn't give a rip about the bus' mechanical features and options, they were more than aware of the lack of a heater, it being the first day of December during a pretty decent snowstorm, and all of them were probably bundled up like Eskimos as the bus trundled along what was then a back county road paralleling the Denver and Rio Grande Western tracks, not all that far from their final destination of Jordan High School. 

The destination never reached...Old Jordan High School.  The school was in use until the late 90s.  When it was torn down, the front entrance facade was preserved and used as the main entrance to a multi-screen theater complex. Picture courtesy of KSL TV News
There wasn't any horse-play or loud talking going on...remember, Silcox ran a tight ship...so the thirty-nine kids on board that morning were talking quietly. I have a feeling the snow and Christmas may have been major topics of conversation, along with basketball, December being, then as now, smack dab in the middle of high school hoops season. A few were, as every kid who ever rode the bus has done occasionally, hustling to finish up assignments before the bus swung into the JHS driveway. A pretty 17 year old Senior named Naomi Lewis had knocked out a pretty intense poem the night before, presumably for English class. She'd never get to turn it in. Fifteen year old Virginia Nelson closed her English book, having just finished up the last of a couple of verb problems, and sat back to relax and probably chat with her friends for a few minutes, her now finished homework peeking out from the pages of the textbook. Her homework wouldn't get turned in either.

The bus was nearing a wide spot in the road known as Burgon's Crossing as it rolled along the narrow, oil and gravel paved road that paralleled the Denver and Rio Grande tracks. The road 'switched sides' here... making a near 90 degree turn to the right and climbing a slight grade to cross the single track at an unsignaled crossing, then dropping back down and heaving itself 90 degrees to the left to parallel the tracks to their east rather than west. The kids barely took notice as they felt the bus slow and swing ponderously into the turn...they rode this route every morning, so it's a good bet that the only notice they took of it was as a land mark, as in 'X number of minutes before we get to school'. A couple of the kids in the seats that backed up to the right sidewall of the bus may have glanced back over their shoulder only to realize for the umteenth or so time that the windows were completely fogged over.. A couple of them, though, thought they heard something...


The weather...in the form of what the weather gurus today would call a 'Major Snow Event'...not only caused Silcox to start his route early, it, was playing absolute havoc with the D&RGW's train schedules. Denver and Rio Grande Freight # 31, known as 'The Flying Ute', pulled out of Helper, Utah, just over 100 miles south of Sandy, at just past 3:30 AM, already almost three hours late. D&RGW Locomotive # 3708...a big, articulated 4-6-6-4 Challenger class freight engine...wasn't even breaking a sweat as it dragged fifty freight cars, thirty-eight of them empty, out of Helper, but the snow storm...near a full blizzard in Helper when Engineer E.L.Rehmer yanked on the whistle lanyard, released the brakes, and pushed the overhead mounted throttle around it's quadrant...slowed them even further. Had the weather been clear they would have rumbled through Provo, twenty seven miles and change from Burgon's Crossing, at just about the time they actually pulled out of Helper but instead they rolled through at 7:54 AM. 

The storm was easing quickly by then, though, watery gray daylight replacing eerie, snow cocooned night-darkness, and, with a half mile or so of visibility ahead of them, Rehmer eased the throttle open, slowly bringing the train up to 52 miles per hour...actually two miles per hour faster then the speed limit in that section of line, and the speed they were making as they passed the whistle board for Burgon's Crossing. On the right side of the big steamer's cab, Rehmer reached up left handed, grabbed the whistle lanyard and tugged it, blasting the steamers whistle in the long-short-long-long crossing warning.

Most accounts of the of the accident would have you believe that a full-scale, wind-howling, snow-slinging, white-out inducing blizzard was still lashing Sandy at just after 8:30 that morning, but according to the ICC reports and a couple of dozen witnesses, they were just on the edge of the storm, which was actually leaving Sandy behind as Train #31 pounded towards Burgon's Crossing. In fact, according to statements made by the train crew, no more than a light, fine snow was falling,  Both fireman Al Elton, in 3708's cab, and the train's conductor, who was ensconced in the caboose, nearly a half mile behind the locomotive, confirmed this when, during the investigation, they stated they could see the entire length of the train as they approached the crossing. So, according to them, while visibility definitely wasn't sunny-spring-day clear you could still see a good half mile up the track. Of course, you've got to remember something about steam locomotives...

...and that's the fact that the crew, basically, had almost no forward visibility. In fact, forward visibility pretty much sucked, especially in a big articulated freight engine like #3708. The engineer sat on the right side of the cab  the fireman on the left and while the cab did have very small front windows...really more like slits than windows...high in the upper front corners of the cab, all they really provided was a look down the side of the sixty or so foot length of the boiler with absolutely no view of the track directly ahead of them. Through these same tiny windows they had only a very, very limited angle of view to the left or right...so limited that it was virtually useless. 

One of the D&RGW's big 3700 series 4-6-6-4 Challengers. Locomotive 3708...the locomotive that struck the bus in Sandy...was essentially identical.  This also illustrates just how little forward visibility the crew of a steam locomotive had. The boilers on the Challengers were 60' long, blocking any view ahead or to the opposite side of the track from the engineer's or fireman's seating position. This is why you always saw the engineer and fireman on steam locomotives leaning out of the cab's side 'Picture' window, no matter what the weather...they had to do this in order to see ahead of them.

 This is why, generally, back in the age of steam, you always saw the engineer and fireman (When he wasn't tending the fire that kept the behemoth moving) leaning out of the cab window to see what was ahead of them.. They could lean out of the cab's side 'picture' windows and see what was ahead of them, but they had to work as a team to do so. See there was another problem. The engineer and fireman had no view what-so-ever of what was happening on the opposite side of the right of way from where they were sitting. Again, that sixty foot long boiler blocked the view of the opposite side of the right-of-way. 

So, having absolutely no view of what was going on on the left side of the locomotive, the engineer had to depend on the fireman to spot, identify, and advise him about any hazards on the left in time for him to react. The engineers reaction to an emergency on a train is pretty much limited to 'Stand On The Brakes and Pray You Can Get Stopped', so the fireman has to identify said hazard and let the engineer know he had a problem at least a half mile or so before they reached it. And sadly, that wasn't always possible...especially if the hazard was only a couple of hundred yards away when it became a hazard. And this is exactly what happened in Sandy that morning.

 Elton was leaning out of the left side cab window, peering ahead as they roared towards the crossing, Rehmer yanking on the whistle cord, sending the shrill, melodic cry that was a steam locomotive whistle shrilling through the country-side. One of them reached up and turned an air valve that started the locomotive's air powered bell clanging. Elton saw a yellow school bus, several hundred yards ahead of them, lumber around the curve at Burgon's crossing and ease to a stop about 25 feet from the tracks...it looked like the bus was going to stay put, but he kept his eyes on it anyway...

A map of the school bus route from the Salt Lake City Tribune, Dec 2, 1938.  As can be seen from the modern satellite view below, with the exception of State Street, none of the named streets exist now (I even confirmed this by searching on Google Maps). Seventy-seven years of population growth has changed the street layout drastically, and the numbered streets have been renumbered, making it a bit of a task to even actually find the site of the accident crossing, which was still in use until 2002. I circled it in red, as well as indicating it with a couple of arrows. The building circled in red in the upper right of the modern view (Below) is the Jordan Commons multiplex theater complex, on the former site of old Jordan High School...they were with-in minutes of making it to school when they got hit.
Modern Satellite view of the Sandy, Utah area, with the site of the accident crossing indicated bottom center with a red circle and arrows. The former site of Jordan High School...now a multi-screen theater complex...is red-circled in the upper right of the view. Satellite view courtesy Google Maps

The kids didn't give it a second thought as the bus eased to a stop, simply continuing their studying or talking and paying little or no attention to what was going on up front, so there's no real agreement as to whether Silcox opened the bus door to give himself a better view up the tracks, or if he even looked up and down the tracks at all. And it's not like he had no visibility, BTW. All of the side windows were fogged and/or frosted over but, while the bus didn't have a heater it did have what was called a 'frost window' or 'Clear Vision Window' on both sides of the windshield as well as the drivers side window (Though that window, didn't factor into the accident as the train was approaching from the right.).

These frost windows were separate, rectangular heater-boxes attached to the inside of the windshield or window. They used the exact same theory as present day rear window defrosters, but were far, far cruder in design. Though bulky and crude, they were actually pretty effective.

 Frost wasn't the only thing compromising Silcox's view of the outside world, though... The body of the buses of that vintage narrowed at the cowl, so the door was actually at an angle, the door opening itself was narrower, and the door-windows were smaller than those on modern buses.  This meant that  if Silcox didn't open the door, he didn't have much of a view to his right...the direction that Train #31 was bearing down on them from...at all. 

The area of the crossing today...the crossing was removed in 2002. While seventy-seven years worth of growth and progress have changed the area drastically, I was able to narrow down the crossing, and I think a short stretch of the roadbed of the original road that paralleled the west side of the tracks is still faintly visible. The paths of bus and train are indicated on the satellite view, with the bus' intended direction of turn indicated as well. Silcox actually did stop, but failed to see or hear the train.

We'll never know for sure whether or not he opened the door, looked, or just said a couple of Hail Marys and popped the clutch, but what is known...all too well...is that a few seconds after he stopped, Silcox down-shifted, eased the clutch out and pulled forward, onto the tracks. And, in an eerie precursor to the Evans,Colorado crash twenty-three years later, one of the kids at the front of the bus glanced to the right, saw the front end of Locomotive 3708 bearing down on them and, at the instant before the world exploded around them, screamed...



Elton, leaning out of the 'picture'; window on the left side of 3708's cab, very likely went pale and bug-eyed, letting go a curse as he saw the bus tires begin to roll. He turned his head as he saw the bus moving forward, yelling 'Big-hole Her!!!!'...Railroad speak for 'Emergency Brakes Now!!!!'...across the cab even as the front bumper of the bus crossed the first rail. Rehmer who'd been stemming D&RGW freight locomotives for years, slammed the throttle closed and grasped the air-brake lever, yanking it all the way back into emergency even as Elton's warning echoed through the cab. The bus was maybe 200 feet ahead of them as the brakes dumped, grabbed, and the wheels locked and started singing the steel on steel scream that's preceded so many tragedies, but they probably hadn't even slowed down before the pilot (What children from time-eternal have called the 'cow-catcher) of the big 4-6-6-4 bit into the right side of the bus just about broad side with a cataclysmic 'Crwump!!!
The one boy's shouted warning came at almost the same instant the bus blew apart in a deadly burst of flying metal, glass, seats, books...and kids. The right side of the bus wrapped itself around the front platform of the big steamer like a sheet wrapping up a mummy as it tore away from the rest of the body with a quick but tortured scree of ripping metal. The rest of the body ripped loose from the chassis and tumbled like a hard-kicked tin can for 101 feet before landing up-right, leaving a trail of coats, books homework, lunches, seats, and injured kids as it tumbled, looking like a bomb had gone off inside of it when it landed hard by the tracks. Most of the kids were violently ripped from their seats as the bus came apart explosively, several of them landing on the track ahead of the onrushing steel behemoth that had just slammed in to them. A couple of them were ejected through the right side windows to land on the pilot and front platform of the locomotive. Everyone was ejected and twenty-three of the kids on board the bus, along with Silcox, were killed instantly as the train ripped it apart. Two more, horribly injured, would die with-in the next couple of days. 


The front and right side of the bus body as well as the chassis wrapped around the front of D&RGW locomotive 3708. Look behind the man in the dark hat at the extreme right of the shot, and you can see one of the bus' center seats, still mounted on the chassis. Cutting torches had to be utilized to separate bus and train.  Also you can see just how big these locomotives were here...they were huge. This is the class of big that the term 'Ginormous' was coined to describe...it's amazing that anyone survived this accident. Screencap courtesy of KSL-TV, Salt Lake City, Utah
Another view...this one, sadly, low quality...of the front of the bus wrapped around the front end of the locomotive. The still-mounted center seat is easily seen here, and it looks like one of the perimeter seats may be just visible  just ahead if it, behind the front portion of the roof. A couple of bodies actually ended up between the bus body and the front of the locomotive, on the locomotive's front platform and pilot...they were likely ejected through the right side windows of the bus.

The rear and left side of he bus body, which tumbled just over 100 feet from the crossing after being torn away from the chassis.. The entire right side of the bus body was torn away the way you'd rip the side off of a cardboard box.  Note one of the perimeter seats, still in place beneath the next to last full size window, and two of the center seats visible in the wreckage...one just in front of the perimeter seat, and a second (And possibly a third) visible in front of the open rear emergency door.

It's also possible that the rear half of the bus had been rolled upright in this pic...I found a very short YouTube vid of some news reel footage (Posted the link in 'Links') and the rear half of the bus was lying on it's side in the video.
This pic appeared in the Salt Lake City Tribune the day after the accident, and very clearly illustrates the layout of the road and crossing as well as the path of the bus. The train was northbound. The rear portion of the bus body is visible, circled, in the upper left middle of the pic. Again, it's notable that Silcox did indeed stop, but didn't take enough care to ensure there was no train before he proceeded across the tracks.

  The train slid about a half mile before shuddering to s stop, but still actually got stopped before it completely cleared the crossing...note that there are railroad cars on both sides of the crossing as the train was 'cut' to allow access from both sides of the tracks.  Given that 3708 couldn't be moved for a couple of hours after the crash...until the bus chassis was moved..., a second locomotive had to have been dispatched to both move the rear half of the train, and to continue 3708's run.

Also note how little snow was on the ground...one of several factors that handily refuted the 'Train was obscured by snow' theory. One thing that, to me, is also instantly notable. This was well into the incident, given the number of people on scene and the fact that the media had arrived...but there's not a single piece of emergency equipment visible anywhere.

 Even as the train punted the body like a football the locomotive's pilot over-rode the bus' frame rails and dragged the chassis and right side of the bus over a half mile. The bus' right side frame rail bent like cooked spaghetti as the chassis crammed itself beneath the pilot and slammed into the  locomotive's front...or pilot...truck, derailing it, the derailed wheels tearing up ties, scattering ballast like shrapnel, and digging up the roadbed until 3708 finally shuddered to a stop 2300 feet and change from the crossing, scattering bus-parts, including the entire front clip and drive-train, alongside the right-of-way. 

No one got out of this one uninjured, and the injuries, in many cases, were life-changing. I'm not sure where the first phone call reporting the accident came from...this was 1938, remember, and while the telephone was becoming more and more main-stream, only just more than  thirty percent of homes had phones. A young lady named June Winn was waiting for the bus on her front porch about a quarter mile north of the crossing, as kids have done during bad weather since time eternal. This was open country back then, remember, so she could see the crossing from her porch, and she also saw the train coming, and saw the bus ease to a stop. Knowing she had just a couple of minutes...however long it took the train to pass and the bus to cross the tracks and make it the quarter mile or so to her house...she gathered her books and started walking towards the end of her driveway, just in time to hear the 'CR-WUUMMP!! of the crash, and looked up to see the dismembered chassis being shoved down the track ahead of the train. (That absolutely had to be one of the most traumatic 'This can't really be happening' moments of all time.). 

June ran back to the house, dropping her books and screaming for her parents, and if the Winns had a phone I'd lay odds that they made the first call and if that was the case, the train could have very well still been sliding when one of the Winns picked the phone up and desperately rang for the operator.  But I've also found one source that stated that someone had to run for over a mile to find a phone, and no matter how quick that call was made, this was 1938, and prehospital care, especially for the type of injuries suffered in this accident, just plain long didn't exist at all. 

Meanwhile, as tragedy played out only a couple of miles away, seventeen year old Wanda Shields stood just inside the front entrance of Jordan High School, watching the buses roll in, specifically for the bus her BFF rode...the bus she would  have ridden if her little sis hadn't gotten sick the day before, causing Wanda's mom to nix a planned-for sleepover with her BFF because she needed Wanda at home.

Her bestie never arrived. It was still spitting snow as the first bell rang, and Wanda drifted off to her first period class, where she found her first period teacher and several students crying...one of the girls looked at her, teary eyed and said 'Oh my
God, Wanda...' Before this un-named girl could finish the thought the bell rang three or so times...the coded signal back in those pre-P.A. system days for all students to assemble in the Auditorium.  This assembly was where Wanda, and the rest of the student body found out about the crash. The principal told them that there had been a 'Horrible crash', but gave few other details, as only dribs and drabs of information had made it back to the school. He then told the kids that school was canceled for the day, and parents were called and buses recalled to pick the kids up. 

Wanda didn't know for sure that it was her best friend's bus involved in the accident...but she had a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach that was telling her that it was. This memory...recounted by Wanda when she was interviewed as the accident's 75th anniversary approached...was one of the very few references I found of any kind to emergency response to the crash.

We have to remember that this was a very rural area back in 1938, and that the U.S was still in the midst of The Great Depression, though it was beginning to ease...very slightly...by the end of the decade.  Fire departments in that area, other than Salt Lake City's, were all volunteer if they existed at all. Equipment would have been equally limited... downright primitive by today's standards...as very few Volunteer F.D.s could afford new rigs during the depression. Heavy rescue equipment consisted of railroad jacks and acetylene torches and, for the most part, was only carried by specialized rigs in the largest cities. 

  There were few phones, no radios, and notification of volunteers, where they did exist relied on the age-old 'House Siren' perched on a pole next to the fire house. But to to be very honest here, I have a feeling that there was no fire department to respond in Sandy, Utah, or anywhere closer than Salt Lake City or Midvale on that tragic December first eighty years ago. South Jordan...smaller than and hard by Sandy to the West...didn't get anything vaguely resembling fire protection until 1951, and it's telling that in the accident scene pics I've been able to find there's not a single firefighter or emergency vehicle visible anywhere...just lots of private vehicles and guys in suits.

The great majority of ambulances back then were operated by either hospitals or funeral homes and the closest ones to the scene were probably in Salt Lake City (which even back then was a teeming city of 140K residents), and Midvale, which, with just shy of 3000 residents, was one of the largest towns in the area. Ambulances were requested from throughout the region and twelve responded to the scene. Back in 1938, though, prehosital 'Patient Care' was focused on getting the patient to the hospital quickly, and very little was done in the field, so no matter how many ambos responded or where they were responding from, it would be a very basic 'Swoop and Scoop' operation once they got there.  The thirteen...out of 38...kids who survived were put on stretchers, loaded into onto one of the ambulances, and the drivers floor-boarded the big Caddies or Packards to get them to the hospital while the patient were still breathing and viable. From the period news reports I read six or eight of these kids were extremely lucky...they were treated for their injuries and released (I'm betting they were seated at the very rear, on the left side of the bus).

This was a nasty, nasty crash...At least seven of the survivors suffered critical injuries, and two of them would die before the next couple of days passed. Twenty-three died at the scene, and  many of the bodies were so badly mangled that not only did parents have trouble identifying their children, officials on scene had trouble determining just how many kids had been on the bus and who had been killed. Remember me saying just above that info was slow to arrive at JHS? They weren't even sure who was aboard the bus, and for a short while, just which bus it was. 

Once they were sure which bus was involved in the crash, figuring out just who was on the bus wasn't easy...remember, the technology we take for granted today hadn't even been thought of in 1938. The first thought that comes to mind is 'See what students aren't at school'...but such a head count at the school wouldn't necessarily be accurate because a student could be absent for any number of reasons...several of the kids who should have been on Silcox's bus, remember, missed it. Volunteers ultimately had to canvas door-to-door along Silcox's bus' route to determine who had and hadn't been aboard...and who hadn't returned home from school. And the information they tallied in that grim census was heartbreaking. As happened in Evans two decades and change later, several families lost multiple children, three families loosing two children apiece. And, also as happened at Evans, several sets of cousins were among those killed in the crash, meaning some parents lost not only a son or daughter, but a niece or nephew as well.

Of course, as parents found out about the crash, those who could descended upon the scene to search for their kids. There was absolutely no perimeter control at scenes back then...at least not as strict as it is today... and parents pretty much had the run of the scene. They either had the horrible, horrible experience of finding their childrens' bodies on the scene (Words don't even exist to describe the horror of that experience) or had to embark on that frustrating, heartbreaking search for the hospital or morgue that their child was transported to. (This lack of information available for parents or other relatives about the status of their loved ones who were involved in a major mass casualty incident...MCI in modern terminology...is a problem that hasn't been completely solved to this day). 

The investigations started immediately, of course, with one of the first investigators to arrive on the scene being Lote Kinney, who was special investigator for the Salt Lake County Attorney, and he was also one of the first to confirm that visibility wasn't overly obscured by the weather. He got to the scene about 9:15AM...just under 45 minutes after the accident...and could see a good half mile up the track in both directions. Being a sharp and intuitive investigator, one of the first questions he asked was 'Is this about what the weather was like when the accident happened?' The answer was yes. So it was pretty obvious that, had Silcox looked...I mean really looked...he should have seen Train #31 bearing down on the crossing.

Kinney didn't even have to ask about road conditions, which he knew would be questioned. He wasn't notified until at least fifteen minutes after the the accident, then had to drive to the scene from Salt Lake City...about eighteen miles distant...through the snow on the less than stellar roads of the day, and he still rolled onto the scene only forty-five or so minutes after that cataclysmic 'CRA-WHUMP!!' echoed across the beet fields. So he knew that it hadn't been snowing but so hard at the time of the crash. But he did ask (As did the ICC investigators later) to make it official. Witnesses, including several of the surviving students, noted that the road was clear, with absolutely no snow on it at all, and that the bus didn't so much as slip a single time along it's route. So road conditions played absolutely no part in the accident.

The ICC accident investigation branch...fore-runner of the present day NTSB...was just as thorough as today's organization, though they didn't have the technology that's taken for granted today to help them out.. Measurements were taken and recorded, dozens of pictures taken (Cameras had gotten pretty sophisticated by 1938) and witnesses were interviewed. They were even able to determine the train's exact speed at the moment of impact...steam locomotives were nearing their zenith of technical sophistication in 1938 (Diesels were already beginning to encroach on the steamers' kingdom by the late 30s) and 3708 had a speed register tape, integrated with it's Valve Pilot (An early fuel efficiency device), that recorded the train's speed, giving the investigators a actual readout of just how fast the train was going when it hit the bus as well as it's speed for the few minutes just preceding the accident.

The bus chassis was jammed up under 3708's pilot so tightly that torches had to be used to free it, then the locomotive's pilot truck had to be rereailed. This took time of course, and when these tasks were finished another locomotive was brought in to complete the run and 3708 was taken to the railroad's shops and gone over with a fine toothed comb. The mechanics and investigators wielding that comb found out exactly what Rehmer probably told them in the first place...that the big Challenger class locomotive was operating perfectly. There was just absolutely no way to get a fifty car freight train stopped in 200...or, for that matter, 2000...feet.

The basic cause of the accident was actually pretty easily determined...Silcox drove the bus in front of the train. What wasn't so easy to figure out...and remains unknown to this very day...was just why he drove the bus in front of the train. I have a sneakin' suspicion that this is why, as the story of the crash was told and retold over the years, the weather conditions have become exaggerated to the point that, in just about every account I've read, the storm was described as a full blown blizzard. If it was snowing that hard, that had to be the reason Silcox, who was known to be very responsible, drove in front of the train. The way looked clear when he checked, then, just as he drove onto the tracks,The Flying Ute just suddenly appeared out of a wall of falling show like some deadly wraith.

The ICC report actually refutes that cause pretty handily, but you don't even need that very informative document to see that Sandy, Utah's first snowstorm of the winter of '38/'39 wasn't anything close to a blizzard. You just need the photos that appeared on the front page of pretty much every newspaper in the US in the days after the accident. If you look at the accident scene photos, you quickly realize that it couldn't have been snowing but so hard at the accident scene, because there's just not that much snow on the ground. On top of that, as noted above, Lote Kinney stated that he could see a good half mile when he got to the scene, and as I also noted above, one of the very first things he did upon arriving was to confirm that these same conditions existed when the accident occurred.

I have a feeling that Silcox got lured onto the crossing by that same old bug-a-boo that's caused many a train-bus crash, one that can affect even the best and safest drivers...complacency. The Flying Ute should have passed Burgon's crossing almost four hours earlier, before anyone on that bus even thought about waking up. Even with Silcox starting the route early...even if he started the route an entire hour early...the train should have passed through three hours before the bus trundled onto the tracks at Burgon's Crossing.

Silcox wasn't expecting a train. He probably stopped, glanced to the right for an instant, not opening the door to preserve what little warmth the clear vision windows contributed, and, in his mind, saw exactly what he was expecting to see...no train. Unfortunately, of course,, there was a train, right on top of them, and I think Silcox did something that all of us have done while driving. Stop at a stop-sign where there's always very little traffic, glance both ways for an instant, and start moving before your brain yells 'whoa!!', making you look again and foot-stab the brakes just as the trash truck you almost missed seeing, even though it was there, trundles through the intersection. This is very likely exactly what happened to Silcox...except that, when his mind yelled 'Whoa!!' it it was a train that he missed seeing, and when he foot-stabbed the brakes, it was too late.

According to every modern account I read about the accident...most written as either the unveiling of the memorial that was erected to memorialize the victims of the crash or the anniversary of the accident approached...the laws requiring school bus drivers to stop, open the door and side window, and actively look for a train, were enacted as a result of this accident. In another eerie precursor to Evans, a track-walker was also required....in Utah...for a while until that portion of the law was repealed because of the hazard that whoever walked the crossing was exposed to.

And I have a feeling that the 'In Utah' that I noted above is a clue here. I think the more stringent laws were enacted in Utah, and possibly a few other states, but it wasn't federally mandated, nor was it quite as stringent as the laws enacted after the Spring City crash, which required drivers to silence everyone and every thing on the bus that could make noise before listening for an oncoming train.

And it's not like laws didn't already exist...there was, in fact, already a law on the books in Utah requiring school bus drivers to stop at crossings, reading as follows:

'The driver of any motor bus carrying passengers for hire or any school bus carrying children shall, before crossing any track of a railway, stop such vehicle not less than 10 feet or more than 50 feet from the nearest rail of such track, and while stopped shall look and listen for any approaching railway trains and for whistles or other warnings indicating the approach of a train, and shall not proceed until it is safe to do so'

So the basic gist of the laws we know now was already in place when this crash happened, as I have a feeling that, by that time, all of the 48 states then comprising the U.S. had a law requiring school buses to stop at railroad crossings. So this accident isn't the one that caused laws requiring school buses to stop at crossings to be put in place, nor are any of the ones that occurred later....those laws were already in place.  I did read in one source that immediately after this accident the ICC 'Strongly Recommended' that a requirement that school bus drivers not only stop at grade crossings, but also open the door to ensure that they could hear an oncoming train, be implemented and enforced. I don't know how widely this recommendation was accepted though. 

I very definitely think that each crash caused something to be added to the laws governing school buses and railroad crossings, often only in the state where the accident occurred, until the Department of Transportation finally mandated that the best features of all of the state laws be combined and tweaked, and that this standardized law be put in place in every state.

Whatever laws and safety improvements were inspired by the accident were no great comfort to the residents of Sandy, South Jordan, and environs there-of. Christmas in that then-tiny community was shattered that year as twenty three families (Three families lost two children each) planned funerals rather than Christmas celebrations, and the community suffered and mourned right along with them. Jordan High had four hundred students, Sandy had 1500 people. Everyone at Jordan High probably knew most, if not all of the kids on that bus. Everyone in the area was affected...everyone in Sandy, South Jordan, and several other small towns JHS drew it's student body from knew at least a couple of the kids on the bus. The funerals probably seemed to go on forever.


Helen Young                                                        Rela Beckstead

Helen and Rela were best friends 

Neal Wilson Densley                                         James Carlisle

Robert Egbert                                                   William Glazier

George Albert Hunt                                               Lois Johnson

Bayard Larson                                                        Rosa Larson

Naomi Lewis                                                             Helen Lloyd

Del Marcy                                                                   Raye Miller

Virginia Nelson                                                 Allan Peterson

Roland Page                                                         Duane Parkinson

Roland's girlfriend was also killed in the accident

Kenneth C. Peterson                              Harold Sandstrom  
Carol Stephenson

Ida Viola Sundquist                                       Wilbert Webb

Naomi Webb Dean                                         Leroy Winward


<***>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


I'm doing the same thing with the second half of my 'School bus/Train crash' series of articles that I did with the first half..starting with the worst and most infamous of the bunch, then taking the others in chronological order. And I'm kind of working backwards while I'm at it...the first half of the series covered 1955 to the present, while this set of posts covers 1920 or there-abouts to 1954.

Not only is the Sandy bus crash the the worst of the accidents covered in this set of posts, as noted above, it was the worst school bus-train crash, and the worst crossing accident in U.S. History. That being the case, you'd think that there would be all kind of accurate information on-line about this one. Guess what, gang...ain't the way it happened.

Oh, there are loads of articles out there. Problem is, a lot of the basic information's just dead wrong. The majority of the articles I found were written as the date of the unveiling of a monument to the crash victims approached, and all of them...Every. Single. One....repeated the 'Train Suddenly Appeared Out Of The Blizzard' story. A couple of them had the number of cars on the train wrong. The speed at impact varied from the correct '50MPH' (OK, it was actually 52, but at least they were close) to 60MPH. The articles couldn't even agree on the number of fatalities, ranging from 23 (The original reported number of deaths at the time of the accident) to 27 (One more than actually died). Making things even more difficult, I had trouble finding any contemporary articles about the crash, even coming up dry at the Genealogy site that I use as one of the base sources for subjects for my blog, and That really surprised me.

By sheer luck I ran up on a link for an archive of old, old ICC/NTSB reports, going back to the very early part of the 20th century, and while every report of every accident that was investigated in the century and change span covered by the archive isn't in the archive, this one (As well as a couple of others I was looking for) was. Thanks to that chance finding of a link to an archive of ancient Interstate Commerce Commission accident reports, this post is hopefully accurate...or as accurate as I could make it at any rate.

Then, with a little bit more research and with the help of the great cyber-know-it-all, Google, I finally found a couple of archived newspaper articles that gave me a few more facts...such as the engineer's and fireman's first and last names...not included in the ICC report, allowing me to make this a bit more than a couple of paragraphs of maybe-facts and lots of speculation. Oh I speculated a bit...it's one of the things I do. But I really do like to include at least a few actual, accurate facts in my posts as well.

Though the basic info wasn't accurate in the modern articles, they did contain a couple of pretty awesome human interest stories, which I'll relate below...So lets do the notes...


It took a quarter century for a memorial to be erected in honor of the victims of the crash. I couldn't find a whole lot of information about just why it took so long for these kids to be memorialized, but when it was finally done, it was done right.

The monument is a ten foot polished marble obelisk, located at Community Center/Heritage Park, 10778 S. Redwood Road in South Jordan, and has brass plaques at the base telling the story of the crash and naming all 39 students who were aboard the bus. Sadly, I couldn't find a good picture of the memorial


Remember Virginia Nelson's English homework? That page or so of verb problems ended up being a story of it's own. Her little sister now has a scrap that's all that remains of that homework...but it's a scrap that has Virginia's name on it. And she didn't get it back for 75 years.

Joyce Nelson was devastated by her big sister's death. I believe Joyce was in elementary school when Virginia was killed, and she found out about the accident and the death of her sister through what she probably thought was going to be a pleasant surprise...seeing her parents swing into the school driveway early in the day, then seeing her mom or dad at the classroom door, getting her out of school way early. Puzzled jubilation, sadly, quickly gave way to devastation...and she's missed Virginia ever since. Her big sis had always had her back, had always been someone she could look up to and ask for advice, had been her partner in crime, sounding board, and confidant...and now she was gone. Christmas didn't even exist that year. The tears have lasted for 75 years.

A handsome kid named Carol (Pronounced as if it were 'Carl' ) Stephenson,  who looked like he had just a spark of good natured mischief in his eyes, and who was probably seriously popular with the ladies of JHS...he just looked the type...was also killed in the crash. His parents possibly picked the scrap of homework up at the scene while looking for any of his possessions that may have been scattered along the tracks. The scrap of homework ended up in a box of Carol's possessions that Stephenson family kept to remember him by, and this box was passed down through the years until it came into the hands of Carol's niece, Caroleen, who was born some years after his death. She had looked at this scrap of homework numerous times, keeping it even though it had nothing to do with her uncle, because, after all, it belonged to one of the kids who was killed in the accident, very likely a friend of Carol's, and besides....it would mean something to someone. Problem was, there was really no way to easily find out just who. Nearly three quarters of a century had passed. The survivors of the accident would all be in their late 80s or early 90s. People had married, moved, and passed away in the intervening 75 years. Still, she hung onto it, hoping that somehow, she could get it to a relative of the young lady who'd originally finished it...

Then, as 2013 drew to a close, the accident's approaching 75th anniversary inspired another round a of articles, one of which announced the unveiling of the memorial on Dec 1st, 2013. Caroleen decided to make the three hundred or so mile trip from Glendale, Utah to attend the unveiling in order to honor her uncle...and hopefully find someone in Virginia Nelson's family to give the homework paper. It was, she knew, a fairly remote possibility.

Virginia Nelson's long lost homework assignment.

...With her name still legible at the top of the page.
 Both pictures courtesy of KSL-TV Salt Lake City, Utah.

After the monument was unveiled, the names of the victims were read off and as Virginia Nelson's name was read off a still very spry older lady stood. Caroleen made her way over to her and asked her if she had been related to Virginia Nelson. The lady..Now Joyce Holder, formerly Joyce Nelson...told her that why, yes, Virginia had been her older sister.

Caroleen held out the tattered homework paper, now protected in a plastic bag, and said 'I believe this was your sister's. Tears appeared in Joyce Holders eyes as she saw Virginia's name on the still very readable page. She had idolized her big sis, still missed her to that very day. Now she had something tangible...something that Virginia had actually handled...to remember her by.

Of course that wasn't the end of the story...Caroleen had a 300 mile drive home ahead of her, and wanted to get on the road, so she told Joyce that she was so glad she'd found her, wished her well, and said she had to get on the road. Somewhere in there she never introduced herself. Joyce set out on a mission of her own...to find the person who returned Virginia's homework to her. Of course, that was far easier than Caroleen's search for her had been, because the story was published statewide, and Caroleen saw one of the articles, got in touch with Joyce, and introduced herself.

Somewhere, in Heaven, an angel named Virginia's smiling down on her little sis, and saying 'Hey, I've always had your back, Sis...I'm still with you'. And, being eternally fifteen, she's looking at that homework paper and thinking 'Shoot...I'd've aced the thing, too!!!'


One of the many tragedies of a young person's death is the lost potential...there is no way to regain that potential, or to know just what contributions to society that person may have made. One of the best illustrations of this from the Sandy, Utah accident is the poem that seventeen year old Naomi Lewis penned the night before the accident, possibly for a homework assignment, that I've included below.

"Earth's Angels"
I like to think that wind
Is angels in the trees,
Stately noble angels
That no one ever, ever sees.
When the world is peaceful
And people are living right,
They rustle the branches gently
Throughout the entire night.
But when the world is wicked
Then sorrow bursts from the trees.
And it sounds like the wailing,
Woeful hum
Of hostile, atrocious bees.
But in my imagining
It's angels sorrowing in the tree.
At night they call a council
Of angels on the earth,
Each angel chooses a mortal
To guide to his preordained worth.
So I like to think that wind
Is angels in the trees
Stately, noble angels
That no one ever, ever sees.
Naomi Lewis, age 17, penned the night before she died in the bus/train wreck.


The only thing worse for parents than the nightmare of loosing a child is loosing more than one child at the same time. Three sets of siblings were among those killed in the accident. It could have been even worse...there were also three sets of siblings among the survivors.

The horrible phenomenon of loosing several sets of siblings in the same accident has just become possible within the last century and change. It's occurred in multiple school bus accidents (And not just accidents involving trains) over the past 120 or so years, and happened in the second worse train-school bus collision (The one in Evan's Colorado, in December 1961) as well. It's an occurrence that's too horrible to even contemplate...but than again the death of any child is as well.


Speaking of the Evan Colorado Accident, 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.


While there is some dispute over which accident prompted what laws to be enacted at what point in time in which state, one thing that the Sandy accident did inspire was national talks on warning devices at railroad crossings. The flashing red light signal was actually first developed in 1913...about the same time flashing red warning lights began appearing on emergency vehicles, and actually a year before the Wig-Wag signals discussed in the article on the Stratton Nebraska crash were first put in use...but it was nothing like the alternating light RR warning signals we're so familiar with. It consisted , very likely, of a single flashing light (Paired with an electric bell) mounted high on the pole, above the cross-buck sign. The alternating light signal was developed in the thirties, as was the automatic crossing gate. The alternating light signal really began taking hold in the late Thirties to early Forties, and the Sandy, Utah accident is the one that caused their development and implementation to be pushed. The wild thing is, though, to this day, there are still unprotected crossings, especially in very rural areas.


This wasn't the only train/school bus crash in the Salt Lake City area during The Thirties, and the other one I found was unusual in a couple of respects.

Apparently school buses were picked up at the factory and driven home by their assigned drivers back in the thirties, at least they were back then in Utah, and that's exactly what Issac Draper did in late Feb/early March of 1935, just shy of three years before the Sandy bus accident. He traveled to Detroit...probably by train...and picked up a brand new bus, driving it back to Mapleton. Keep in mind here that this was 1935, and while the highway system had advanced by leaps and bounds over what it had been even just twenty years earlier, there were no interstates, and few multi-lane highways...the great majority of highways were two lane roads, so it was probably a multi-day road trip adventure.

On the evening of March 2nd, 1935, Draper was drawing close to home in Mapleton...about 40 miles south of Sandy and straddling the same line of the D&RGW that the Sandy accident had occurred on. He stopped to visit his daughter for a few minutes, probably also using the break to stretch his legs for a bit, then headed for home, only a few miles and about twenty or so minutes distant. In order to get to his home, west of Mapleton near Genola, he had to cross the D&RGW tracks, at the crossing hard by the Mapleton railroad station. A D&RGW passenger train...one not scheduled to stop at Mapleton...was approaching the crossing at the same time Draper rolled up on it. Now, having no kids on board, Draper wasn't required to stop at all, but it would seem to be common sense as well as instinctive self-preservation to do so anyway. But then again, he'd just driven a school bus over 1000 miles. He was probably tired as hell of, as the classic 70s song states, 'The engine droning out it's one lone song'. He was tired in general. He wanted to get home and prop his feet up on something that wasn't moving. The bus was closed up tight, so he apparently didn't hear the whistle. And the train was hidden by the station as he rolled onto the crossing.

The bus just suddenly appeared from behind the station and the train's engineer didn't even have time to dump the brakes before they hit the bus, wrapping it around the front of the locomotive, then scattering bus parts for 1150 feet as the train, it's brakes locked after they hit, slid, the shattered bus tearing out cattle guards on both side of the tracks as it was dragged. Draper's body was thrown clear 450 feet from the crossing. Weather conditions were clear, but Draper was probably about ready to drop, and probably daydreaming about being home and sleeping in his own bed. Investigators determined that Draper's view of the approaching train was obscured by the station, and that his fatigue was very much a contributing factor in the crash.

Sadly, Draper, who farmed as well as driving a school bus, left behind a huge family...a wife and nine kids (Six sons and three daughters). The crossing where the accident occurred was, of course, unsignalled.


Though Sandy grew in leaps and bounds over the past nearly eighty years, and the road system and street layout changed completely, the crossing where the Sandy bus/train crash occurred remained in place until 2002. The crossing had been upgraded to include signals decades earlier by that time of course, but accidents still managed to occur there, with the last fatality occurring on New Years Eve 1995 when three teens were killed when they tried to beat the train. The last accident to occur there was in 2002, just before the crossing was removed, when the driver of a pickup ignored the signals and drove onto the crossing.


The original Jordan High School...the destination that the bus never reached...has an interesting story of it's own. Some of it still exists...as a movie theater.

The original building was built in 1914, and would ultimately be included on the National Register of Historic Places. It was a immense solid two story brick structure with an English basement,..pretty much the traditional vision of 'Early 20th Century School Building'...and actually had a good bit more capacity than needed when opened.

The building was in use from 1914 to 1996...82 years...and was finally replaced with the current building, located only a mile or so away, when it became sorely apparent that it was now far too small...despite additions over the years...and that it was really beginning to show it's age.

The building's issues had been becoming...well...issues for years, and the building was almost replaced in the mid Seventies...as in a replacement school was actually in the early stages of construction, but the school district looked at the student population and projected growth of same, realized that they actually needed a new school as well as Jordan high, and what would have been New Jordan High became one of JHS biggest rivals...Alta High School.

The new Jordan High was finally built and opened in 1996, with a capacity of 2600 students and was one of the nicest school buildings in the nation. And...just to show that 'Be True To Your School' is more than a Beach Boys song, when the school district asked the student body if they wanted to change the school's mascot, colors, and logo to reflect their new digs...

OK, Jordan High's sports teams have been 'The Beetdiggers, in honor of the areas beginnings as one of the primary sugar beet growing regions in the nation, since 1914. The colors have been Maroon and Gray for the same period of time. The general consensus was something to the effect of...

 'Really?? Really, Dudes??? Are you freaking kidding???...No we don't want to change any of the above!!!'

  Beetdiggers they were, and Beetdiggers they stayed (And still are). They tend, from what I've read, to field gridiron powerhouses every fall.

But what of the old building? Being a truly beautiful building on the National Register of Historic Places, you'd think something would have been done with it, and it was...sort of. When a guy named Larry Miller bought the old school and property, he did so so he could build and promote one of the Salt Lake City areas biggest entertainment and shopping venues...Jordan Commons. When the old building was torn down, the front entrance facade was saved and incorporated into the main entrance of Jordan Commons.

Old Jordan High School's entrance facade...steps and all...was used as the entrance to the Jordan Commons Megaplex theater complex, built on the site of the old school. Old Jordan high School's shown in the inset for comparison.  The developers did a pretty decent job incorporating the entrance facade into the modern building, but I still think it would have been far better if the old school itself could have been preserved.


JHS being the destination never reached, and the accident being the worst crossing accident in US History, there are a few ghost stories attached to the old school. Supposedly seven chairs would be found formed into a circle in the cafeteria...when the chairs were put back where they belonged, they'd be discovered an hour or so later, back in the circle. Voices had been heard in the band room and in one of the girls' restrooms when there was no one around. Ghostly apparitions were seen in the halls. All were, apparently, benevolent spirits, and a couple of them apparently made their way to the theater complex as well, as the vision of a lady and teen age girl talking have been seen by maintenance and housekeeping personnel in the mall in the area that would have been the very hallway where this same pair of apparitions  was seen several times when the school was still open. They haven't yet made themselves known to shoppers, however.

There's another, far more famous ghost story that the crash may have helped create...but that's a story for another post.


As I noted a couple of times in this post, there were a slew of articles about the accident out there, but the ICC report makes their accuracy somewhat suspect, with the time-worn 'The Train Appeared Out Of A Blizzard' story being the part of the story that the report most decisively debunked.

First up...the archived ICC report...it's also down loadable as a PDF file. You'll need Adobe Reader or similar PDF reader to view the PDF version:

http://www.galecenter.org/exhibits-busaccident.asp The Gale Center of History and Culture has an extensive exhibit about the accident, including a lengthy and informative video about the accident, as well as the story of Naomi Lewis' poem

http://tinyurl.com/kp2q5jd Desert News article about the accident.

http://tinyurl.com/mkyhql3 Salt Lake Tribune article about the accident...Wanda Shields story is included in this article, as well as a discussion of modern school bus safety.

http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=vcsr&GSvcid=103074 Find A Grave page about the accident.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CgYuzbiN83s A quick YouTube video from Critical Past, with archived news real footage of the scene. There are several views of the rear half of the bus

KSL TV in Salt Lake City broadcast a series of segments on the accident and it's aftermath, all of them pretty decent, though all do indeed include the 'Blizzard':

http://www.ksl.com/?sid=27814442 KSL article and video about the memorial...several interviews with survivors and relatives of survivors are also included, as well as a photo gallery. The map included in the article is of the memorial site, not the accident site.

http://tinyurl.com/kvmc979 Quick article about the unveiling of the memorial.
http://www.ksl.com/?sid=27982346 Article and video about the return of Virginia Nelson's homework to her younger sister...An interview with Joyce Nelson Holder is included. The video is far more moving than the short bit of text I gave it here.

http://www.ksl.com/index.php?nid=148&sid=28008687 Article and video about the lady who returned the homework.


  1. Rob, I very much enjoy this blog. I can tell that you do massive research, keep 'em coming!

  2. One correction about "snow days" in Utah. Utah schools still don't get out for snow days. I went to almost all of my school in Utah and never once did we ever get out for snow. In 1938 my grandmother attended this high school and was supposed to be on this bus that was hit by the train. But , she was sick that day and wasn't on the bus.

  3. To help, Sandy and Midvale City Fire Department were established in 1908. Both departments would have reaponded. The ambulance service throughout Salt Lake County was provided by Salt Lake County Fire Department new Unified Fire Authority. SlCoFD began early EMS first aid in 1921. Salt Lake City Police ran ambulance service at that time. SlCoFD had four ambulances one west in Magna, one east in Holiday and two assigned to Central Station in Murray. South Jordan, West Jordan Riverton and Draper were SlCoFD volunteer stations at that time.
    Rest in peace children.
    J Homen FFPM SlCoFD ret.

    1. Congrats on your retirement and Thank you for this info!! I'll update the post accordingly.

      Looks like Murray would have been closest, then Holloday, then Magna (All would have had a pretty good hike on the roads of the late 30s in bad weather). I'm going to make a guess and say Murray and Sandy only had minimal heavy rescue capability back then and any heavy rescue equipment (AKA BIG jacks and torched) came from Salt Lake City, or very likely the railroad itself. Doing a little more research, it looks like Salt Lake County F.D..had some pretty nice equipment for that era, but heavy rescue trucks...or rescue trucks of any classification...were an extremely rare breed in the 30s.

      I took a look at the Unified Fire District's web site...they have got some nice stations and rigs!

      I just wish that Silcox had taken another 30 seconds or so, popped the door open and actually listened for a train. Then the kids would have just been a couple of minutes later getting to school.

      Again, thanks much for the updated info!

  4. Visited the location if this tradgey today with my grandson and indeed the old crossing can be seen off of Utradent Road. The rail crossing is gone but the tracks are in use by UP and UTA Frontrunner.

  5. I ride frontrunner quite often past this sight on the way to work. I make it a tradition to bow my head as we pass. My family was among the original settlers of South Jordan. May God care for all involved in this horrible tragedy.

  6. Rob, You've done an amazing amount of research and writing to put together this powerfully written post. I grew up in this area, and had friends and classmates among the families affected by this tragedy. Many of the surnames listed are familiar to me, including Silcox (I now have a false front tooth from a balance-beam incident caused by a Silcox.--I've long since forgiven him. lol). The only argument I might have is the Hail-Mary comment you made. That's a Catholic thing, but I'm sure a fervent prayer went up among any who might have had enough warning to do so!! :)

  7. Rob, would you kindly get in touch with me. I am working on a documentary about this incident and the railroad crossing involved. My email is judkinsm85@gmail.com. Thank you.

  8. I loved reading more about this crash. This was my hometown, but I knew nothing of the crash until I moved away nearly 21 years ago. I had no idea that an accident that happened when I was a senior occurred at this same location. The three teens killed at the intersection in 1995 were not trying to beat the train. They confused the lights of the oncoming train with lights from cars on the interstate. They stopped at the tracks then proceeded to attempt crossing when they were struck. They were in a 3 car caravan and the first stopped and proceeded. The second car, unfortunately didn't make it. The third witnessed it all. It was a very emotional time for the students at our high school (Alta) that neighbors Jordan High.