Tragic Bay Area Crash

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School Bus Plunges --- 28 Die,  23 Are Injured

Article by Carolyn Anspacher
San Fransisco Chronicle, Saturday May 22, 1976


Twenty-seven Yuba City teenagers and an adult escort were killed  yesterday and 23 others injured, some critically, when their school  bus inexplicably smashed through the guardrail on an offramp at the  south end of the Benicia—Martinez Bridge and plunged 30 feet to the  ground.


The California Highway Patrol said it was the worst school bus  tragedy in the state's history.

The young people, all seniors and juniors at Yuba City High School,  were members of the school choir. They were bound for a weekend with  their musical counterparts at Miramonte High School in Orinda.

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The accident occurred a minute before ll a.m. after the big, 26—year—old yellow bus suddenly left the Interstate 680 freeway and took the Marina Vista exit that leads into Martinez.


A nagging mystery of the tragedy is why Evan Junior Prothero, the  50-year-old bus driver who is in critical condition, elected to leave  the freeway. 

Some of the young survivors said he turned off for a rest stop. But  the California Highway Patrol said a stop had been made in Solano  county before crossing the bridge and it was decided that the oil  level in the engine was low and would have to be replenished.

In any event, Dean Estabrook, the choir director, driving ahead of  the bus in his own car, took the Martinez off—ramp and saw the  disaster in his rear view mirror. 

What is known is that the bus tore through a five-inch—thick guard  rail, ripping out 50 feet of it. It broke through a concrete  retainer at the edge of the roadway and sailed into the air. IN its  flight, it flipped over and when it crashed on the ground it slid  about 30 feet and came to a halt. 

All the young passengers were thrown from their seats to the top of  the bus which collapsed, crushing the students into the tangled  wreckage. 

Several large cranes, working from the freeway overpass above, raised  the bus, inch by inch, until saws could be used to extricate the dead  and injured. 

Rescue workers recruited from all over Contra Costa county rushed to  the scene which the Rev. Thomas Hayes, a priest called from St.  Dominics' Catholic Church in Benicia, said "looked like a  battlefield." 

The inured were lifted gently from the wreckage and examined by  doctors on the spot and then dispatched by ambulance and helicopter  to nearby hospitals.

The young dead lay on either side of the mangled bus, some covered  with white sheets, other with yellow tarpaulins. 

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It was not until well after noon that all the injured had been dispersed to hospitals, the Veterans, Contra Costa General in  Martinez, John Muir Hospital in Walnut Creek and Mt. Diablo Hospital and Medical Center in Concord. 

Even as the survivors were being taken to hospitals, neurosurgeons and chest surgeons were being flown by helicopter to the area from  San Francisco and Oakland to augment staffs already on duty.

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

As word of the tragedy reached Yuba City, parents of the young people started the 100—mile drive to Martinez, not knowing whether their  children were alive or dead. Singly and in groups they converged on  the hospitals and then were directed to the county's office of  Emergency Services where disaster volunteers tried to give them the information they sought.

One of those for whom there was no immediate answer was Dean Estabrook, the choir director, who was in front of the bus in his own car. On the bus, however, was his wife, Christine, who was  killed.

In Sacramento, the state Legislature fell silent when Assemblyman Eugene Chappie, who represents Yuba City, announced the tragedy. The Assembly immediately adjourned for the rest of the day.

The young people had set off in high excitement at 8:30 a.m. for their weekend in the East Bay. They had planned to lunch at Miramonte High School in Orinda and then spend the night with music students as part of a choral exchange program. The Orinda students were to have visited Yuba City the next weekend. Highway Patrol Captain Bruce G. Emery said late in the day there still was no explanation of why the bus driver had decided to take the fatal turnoff.

It was also reported that the bus had been inspected by the CHP within the 30 days and given a safety clearance. Patrolmen at the scene immediately after the accident said they could find no skid marks on the highway, and an initial inspection of the vehicle revealed no obvious mechanical defects in the bus.

The National Transportation Safety Board in Washington said it is sending five investigators to look into the accident. Agency spokesmen also said this was the worst highway disaster since at least 1967 when the board was created.

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