Anniversary 2010

May 21, 2010 - 34 Years

Yuba City Bus Tragedy Remembered 

On May 21, 1976, 29 died in Martinez in what still  ranks as the worst passenger bus accident in U.S.  history. Asked to recall the Yuba City bus disaster  and the impact it had on him just one year into his  tenure, Martinez’s U.S. Congressman George Miller  told the Gazette on Friday, “It was such a tragedy.  The community was just stunned after the accident and  the number of children who were killed. It was a sad  and tragic traffic accident that really affected the Yuba City community.”

Friday marked the sad anniversary of the Yuba City  bus disaster, in which 28 teenagers and one adult  lost their lives when the brakes of their chartered  bus failed on the Marina Vista off-ramp. The bus  catapulted over the railing and landed directly on  its roof, 21 feet down, crushing the bus like an  accordion. It took rescuers more than half a day and  two giant cranes to extricate all inside. 26 were  declared dead at the scene and three died in local  hospitals subsequently.

22 students and the bus driver, then aged 49,  survived.

The dead were Constance Adkins,17; Marla Azim,15; Bonnie Barfield,18; Ruth Bowen,16; Tom Brooks,18;  Rachel Carlson,16; Danielle Cote,15; Carrie Emmerich, 15; Carlene Engle,17; Sharlene Engle,17; Pam Engstrom, 18; Jim Frantz,17; Cynthia Graham,17; Steve Gust,15;  Amy Hicks,18; Kris Huston,16; Lori Killingsworth,18;  Joanne Matson,15; Jodie McCoy,18; Marti Melani,18; Catherine Mudge, 16; Bobby Ortega, 16; Robert  Randolph,17; Larry Rooney, 15; Seth Rosebrough,16; Larry Shearer, 14; Robert Stafford, 17 and Daniel  Wright, 15.

Cristina Estabrook was the music teacher and adult chaperon; her husband was driving in a car just  behind the bus and witnessed the death of his wife.

The bus was carrying members of the Yuba City High  School Chorus and teacher Estabrook. Traveling from  the Sierra foothills city in a 28-year-old bus owned  by Student Transportation Lines, Inc. of Carmichael  and Marysville, their destination was Orinda’s  Miramonte High School for a day of singing and  friendship. The driver, Evan Prothero, decided to  exit at Marina Vista, it was reported, because the  dashboard was indicating low oil.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board's report on a federal investigation into the  accident, dated Oct. 13, 1977, “a badly deteriorated  air compressor drivebelt on the bus had failed before  the crash. As a result of the belt failure, air was not replaced in the airbrake system. The system's  air pressure dropped to the point where the service brakes were unable to decelerate the bus on the curved ramp. The investigation further revealed that the curvature of the ramp did not meet the minimum standards of the 1957 specifications of the American  Association of State Highway Officials. The location  of signing on the exit ramp suggests that earlier information to the driver on the severity of the ramp geometrics might have resulted in an earlier brake application. This should have alerted the driver to  the ineffectiveness of his service brake system early enough to permit him to continue ahead on the main  roadway and coast to a stop, or to use other braking capability available to him.”

Morning News-GazetteIn the Gazette's [then called the Morning News- Gazette] coverage, a reporter wrote, “In the hectic  hours after the crash, the Contra Costa county disaster center activated to handle a flood of  reporters, shocked parents and confusing reports about the tragedy " one reporter was telling several  others about his visit to John Muir Hospital, where some of the injured were taken. He said he spoke with  one student, Perry Martin, who suffered only a sprained wrist.” In the June 7, 1976 national edition of Time  Magazine, in an article entitled “American Scene: A Luckless City Buries Its Dead,” the reporter wrote  “flanked by weeping relatives, a Spanish—American  couple sat in the shimmering heat in Sutter Cemetery,  holding hands and staring dully at the bronze coffin  that held the remains of their 17-year-old son Bobby..."

“In the same cemetery Mrs. Harry Rosebrough watched dry-eyed as her son was buried. He had died on his 16th birthday. Pamela Engstrom, wearing the blue-and-white gingham dress - a gift from her mother — had  died the day after her 18th birthday. The victims also included Twins Carlene and Sharlene Engle, 18,  who loved to sing songs composed by their mother, Wake and Smile in the Sunshine and Take Pride in  America So it was in Yuba City last week as the 15,000 citizens mourned their dead.”

A United Press International dispatch dated Nov. 16, 1976 reported that Prothero later filed a lawsuit  against the State, the Yuba City School District and the service stations charged with maintaining the  bus. “The suit alleges negligence in the design of the freeway off-ramp from which the bus plunged and  general negligence on the part of those involved in maintaining the vehicle,” states the article, adding  that his wife Betty also filed a suit “claiming the loss of husband's company and affection.”

Today, there is an Evan Prothero, aged 84, still  living in Olivehurst, CA, but nobody answered the  phone.

In the June 8, 1976 issue of the Gazette, a reporter  wrote, “Richard Ethington, 17, had told investigators  he was sitting near the driver when the bus pulled  off the Martinez-Benicia Bridge onto the off-ramp m  when Prothero routinely put his foot on the brake,  Ethington said, ‘nothing happened. The driver pumped  the pedal two or three times and still nothing  happened. His hand suddenly became very busy. I saw  his panic-stricken face in the rear view mirror and  heard him say, ‘oh my God.'”

A San Francisco Chronicle reporter, Erin Hallissy, wrote about the 20-year anniversary of the disaster  in 1996, when local firefighters dedicated a monument at Waterfront Park to those who died in the accident.

Thomas Randolph, who survived the crash but whose twin brother, Robert, was killed, told the crowd that he believed he lost his childhood that day. But over  the past 20 years, he has gained friendships, spirituality and insight that has healed much of his pain, he said. “If it hurts a little today, I just  want you to know that the hurting is just a part of  life,” Randolph said, pausing as he fought to maintain his composure. “There are other parts also  that are just as important, or more.”

Greta Mart
  Martinez News Gazette Staff Reporter
  May 23, 2010


Blessed are they who have regard for the less fortunate-
the Lord delivers them in times of trouble.
The Lord will protect them and preserve their lives;
He will bless them in the land and not surrender them
to the desire of their foes.
The Lord will sustain them...
and restore them from their sickbeds.

- from Psalm 41, Verses 1-3, being a song of David
The Old Testiment

To acknowledge a bygone miracle,
no matter how heinous it still feels,
becomes a messenger of Heaven.

- Tom Randolph


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