School Bus Plunge Kills 28 From Yuba City

And Who Will Want To Listen To Us Then, I Wonder...
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Sacramento Union front page image- THE SACRAMENTO UNION, SATURDAY MAY 22, 1976 MARTINEZ (UPI) - A school bus smashed through a guard rail on a bridge approach, hurtled 30 feet and landed upside down Friday, killing 28 persons - 27 of them members of a high school choir on a last excursion before summer vacation.

The Highway Patrol said 24 others, seriously injured, were taken to three area hospitals. All the victims were from Yuba City and their parents traveled by car and plane to learn the fate of their children.

The tragedy occurred at midmorning as the youngsters from Yuba City High School were en route to Orinda for a performance. The trip was to have been a reward for the choir's year-long work.

The bus had just crossed the Martinez-Benicia Bridge over Carquinez Strait and was leaving the freeway to pull into a rest stop when it smashed through 50 feet of guardrail.

"Suddenly a big cloud of dust went up, the bus leaned over, hit the rail and its wheels went up. Then it dropped over and landed directly on its top," Larry Beaty, 32, a Shell Oil Co. employee who witnessed the crash, said.

Beaty said he and a coworker ran to the bus and saw the limp forms of the youngsters in the wrecked bus. He said arms and legs were protruding from the windows.

"It was horrible," he said, "We pulled out as many as we could. I don't know how many."

Tom Randolph, a student who survived, said, "I guess we were just going too fast."

Dean Estabrook, 35, a music teacher riding in a car which was leading the bus, said he looked in his rear-view mirror and saw the accident. "It all happened so fast," he said.

Estabrook's wife, Christina, was in the bus and was killed.

In Washington, The National Transportation Safety Board said this was the worst school bus crash and the worst highway disaster since at least 1967 when the board was created.

The bus driver, Evan Prothero, 49, Olivehurst, was taken to a hospital where he underwent surgery. His condition was reported as guarded.

Arrow shows path of busOne of the first persons on the scene was Highway Patrol Officer Dan Ackerman.

"The terrible thing about it was that when it flipped over everybody in it was thrown from their seats to the top of the bus," he said. "Then, when it hit the ground on its top they were all smashed into the seats."

The top of the bus collapsed, crushing the youngsters in its tangled wreckage. "I heard a lot of moaning," said Ackerman.

Several large cranes, working from the freeway overpass above, raised the vehicle gently five feet off the field where it fell. Rescue workers lifted the victims from the hanging jumble as gently as possible. The dead were left on the ground nearby and the injured were put in waiting ambulances.

Father Thomas Hayes, a priest called from St. Dominic's Catholic Church in Benicia at the north end of the bridge, said the scene was "like a battlefield." "The injured had been taken away and all that remained were the dead." He said he and several other clergymen went among the bodies, administering last rites.

N.W. Silver, deputy director of the Contra Costa County Office of Emergency Services, said he was on the scene when they lifted the bus.

"They had to inch it up, a little bit at a time. A body dangled out, one leg in one direction, another the other way."

He said rescue workers cut open the vehicle from both sides and the front. Many of the victims appeared to have been crushed without suffering bloody surface wounds. "There was not much blood," he said. "Some of the dead did not look mangled. There was some screaming, but not much. Most of them must have been stunned or knocked out."

When word of the tragedy was received at the choir's home school, students and teachers were stunned. The choir members were all juniors and graduating seniors.

The group had been on the road several hours and was nearing its desstination when the accident occurred. After crossing the mile- long span, the driver was leaving the Interstate 680 freeway for a rest stop.

As the bus circled the huge, arcing offramp, the driver lost control and the vehicle tore through a 5-inch-thick guard rail, ripping out 50 feet of it. It broke a small concrete retainer at the edge of the roadway and sailed into the air. When it crashed on the marshy field below, it slid about 30 feet and came to a stop.

Some of the injured died as teams of surgeons struggled to save them. Only two or three survived with relatively minor injuries.

Will Perry, director of the county emergency office, said when he reached the scene several of the survivors had been pulled from the bus and "were walking around."

"It gave us hope that it wasn't too bad," he said. But when he looked inside the crushed vehicle it did not take long "to know the extent of the tragedy."

It was the worst highway accident on record in California. A bus-car wreck near Baker in 1968 killed 20 persons.

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