Grief in Yuba City

Let It Be Known Henceforth That Your Grief is My Grief and That I Shall Not Ever Leave You Unattended...
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Tears Replace the Sound of Music


YUBA CITY - The principal's office at the high school was a command post for grief Friday.  At 8:30 that morning, 51 members of the school's a capella choir had set off bravely in a 26-year-old bus for a concert at a Bay Area high school.

Several hours later, 28 persons were dead.

Principal George Zerkovich and his office staff were on the telephone calling the parents of students who had ridden the ill-fated Student Transportation Service Co. bus.

The Sheriff of Contra Costa County, where the accident occurred, advised parents not to rush to the area - not to drive themselves. Sutter County sheriff's deputies, utilizing local radio and television, echoed the plea.

"I'm as upset as I can be," Zerkovich said.

The State Department of Education said it was the worst accident involving a bus load of students in the state's history.

Wilson Riles, state superintendent of public instruction, said, "I am deeply grieved by this tragic occurrence and my heart goes out to the parents of these young people. California is a sad place today."

On the high school grounds, teachers and administrators tried to keep on with the regular run of classes. But the word had spread quickly after Zerkovich notified the teachers at 11:25 a.m.  Students burst into tears, held each other and cried.

A girl wandered aimlessly in the courtyard with a bouquet of white and red flowers. She would sit and cry all by herself for a few moments, then she would walk a short distance with the flowers in her hand as if she should give them to someone. As if that would somehow help. "I made it in class," she said.  Presently, she sat with a group of girls and suddenly they were all crying.

Zerkovich dispatched three teachers to the crash area to help identify the dead and seriously injured choir members.

A radio station, KMYC, began to broadcast the names of the known survivors, only a few at first. Students clustered around those who had radios, listening for names of friends.

"Kris Huston" Did they say Kris Huston or Cathy Mudge?" Oh, my God!"

A camera-laden crew from channel 13 barged into the music rooms, cameras grinding in tear-stained faces and the tears turned to rage. School administrators had to be called and the camera crew beat a swift retreat.

Teachers stood at all school entrances to keep newsmen and photographers away.

"We have a school full of emotionally upset children," Zerkovich said. Central school district headquarters would be handing out all the press information.

Elaine Parrish, one of the choral teachers, emerged from the music building.

"Dean Estabrook and his wife were two of my dearest friends." She would not say more.

Hugh Smith, 17, a member of the band said, "I knew everybody that's on the bus."

He said the school had three choirs: the a capella, composed of the very best singers, and the men's and women's choirs.

Another student said most of the a capella choir members were seniors.

A car pulled into the parking lot toward the south end of the campus its radio saying the names of more survivors. Six students tried to listen.

Someone mentioned that Carlene and Sharlene Engle were twins - had anyone heard their names?

Tom Randolph's name was mentioned among the survivors.

"What about Robert?" a girl shouted." His twin brother? Oh...oh... And Perry Martin? And Debra...?"

The community mobilized. Pilots offered to fly parents to the Martinez area. The County Welfare Department offered babysitting services at the Children's Receiving Home. The County Hospital offered around-the-clock services to emotionally distraught parents.

The PTA offered car pools to take parents to the hospitals where their children were. United Way offered its personnel "to help in any way," according to Lee Stirnaman of that agency.

In the Bay Area, the Martinez PTA offered lodging for families as did Red Cross and the area manager of PG&E made his switchboards available to coordinate the lodging problem and as an information center. Mobile units carrying orange flags with citizens band radios were stationed at the off-ramps from Interstate 680 on the Contra Costa County side of both the Antioch and Martinez bridges to guide parents and families.

- by Paul Mapes, Staff Writer

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