Anniversary 1986

Sometimes All We Have is Hope...and Each Other

"An old lady came up to me after Ruth was killed and said,
'Don't let anyone tell you time heals, because it doesn't.'
She had lost a child 21 years before.
If I've learned anything, it's that you learn to cope better.  That's all."

- Jackie Bowen
(speaking through tears a decade after her daughter Ruth died)

Note: You can click on the photos in this page to view larger images.

Broken Bodies, Mended Lives

By Stephen C. Cook and Andrew A. Ross
of the S.F. Examiner Staff
(all photos from 1986 by Examiner staff photographer Mark Constantini)

1O years ago, 28 Yuba City teen-agers died in a bus crash near Martinez. The investigations and lawsuits that followed are gone. What remains is pain - and a human struggle to prevail.

In the center of the old school bus, they were singing "I Want to Die Easy When I Die," the spiritual they were to perform that afternoon.

Catherine Mudge was on her knees, facing back toward the singers, giggling, clowning, exaggerating the movements of a choir director.

Mike Morgan, sitting the last row, glanced up and caught the eye of his girlfriend, Danielle Cote, beside Catherine.  She smiled quickly and waved him to come up, join the fun. Mike didn't want to get up while the bus was moving.

In front of Danielle and Catherine, Larry Rooney turned to Annette Skidmore and said she should see the old ships of the moghtball fleet below.  Annette rose from her seat, put a hand on Larry's shoulder and leaned across the aisle to look.

In front of Larry, sitting beside music teacher Cristina Estabrook, Richard Ethington was hunched forward, elbows on his knees, daydreaming, watching driver Evan Prothero as he piloted the big yellow bus off the Benicia Bridge and into the exit lane.

Tom Randolph"Then I saw his foot come off the gas and hit the pedal for the brakes three times. When I saw it go to the floor each time, I knew something was wrong. I saw his hands grasp the wheel, like with everything that man had in him. I saw his face in the mirror. A look of terror and prayer."

"Oh, my God!" said Evan Junior Prothero, 50, a logging-truck driver, behind the wheel of a school bus for only the third trip in his life.

Tom Randolph (pictured left) was reading; Tolkien's "Return of the King," sitting next to this girlfriend, Chris Young, on the driver's side of the bus, a row behind the emergency exit.

"You look up because something's not right. And suddenly you see yourself heading to the guardrail and realize there's no way you can negotiate the turn, no matter how hard the driver turns the bus."
Above: Tom Randolph in a 1950 Crown Bus.

"The bus is going to hit the guardrail.  Then it hits the rail. My left shoulder was against the left wall and I could feel the guardrail breaking against the side of the bus. And then all of a sudden you break through the guardrail and you're on the verge, at the edge and everyone is up and starting to scream."

Tom Randolph closed his eyes. "I knew that if I closed my eyes I wouldn't feel the impact. I wouldn't remember anything. So that's what I did, and everything went black. I remember the screaming and the falling toward the roof."

Fifty yards in front of the school bus, driving his own car, choir director Dean Estabrook heard a noise and glanced in the rear-view mirror quickly enough to see the bus tip off the ramp, upside down.

Kelly McClungOn board were 50 Yuba City High School students, all members of an a cappella choir en route to a performance at Orinda's Miramonte High School.  And the driver. And the chaperon, Estabrook's 25-year-old wife, Cristina.

He pulled off the ramp and ran to where the bus lay on its back beneath the bridgelike structure. "The wheels were still turning. There was no sound at all," Estabrook says.

"When I woke," says Tom Randolph, "there was no sound. It was dark and I was lying on my left side in a fetal position. The seat I was sitting on was on top of me. Suddenly, the emergency door opened and it was Mr. Estabrook. He looked in and said, "Oh, God!" Then there was moaning around me."

Kelly McClung (pictured left) was about two rows in front of Tom, trapped in a tangle of broken bodies.

"I remember waking up in the bus. I was laying on my left side. I could feel dirt in my mouth and I could see sunlight filled with dirt. There was a lot of screaming.  Al I can remember thinking is 'God, gut us out of here.' It was like a litany, over and over. Everybody sitting around me died."



At 10:55 a.m. on May 21, 1976, a charter bus carrying 52 persons struck and mounted a section of the bridge rail system on the Marina Vista off-ramp of I-680 near Martinez, California...

The left front wheel of the bus contacted the left curb and the steering wheel was jerked out of the driver's hands and spun counter-clockwise...

After mounting the curb and traveling 13 feet, the left front and then left rear wheels of the bus struck and climbed onto the bridge parapet. The bus rode along the top of the parapet wall for 74 feet... before it leaned left and rolled off the wall...

The bus (flipped) and struck the ground 21.6 feet below. The left front roof area struck the ground first and the bus skidded on its roof about four feet before stopping. The roof collapsed rearward and downward, crushing the tops of the seatbacks down to the windowsill level...

Twenty-nine of the occupants died and the rest sustained injuries ranging from minor to serious...

- from the National Transportation Safety Board report

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1986 Examiner Report  |  The Bus Diagram