AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — On the night after Christmas 40 years ago, two buses carved a thin line across the vast blackness of the New Mexico plains. They carried 58 young people and seven chaperones from Woodlawn Baptist Church in South Austin, the passengers still reveling in the merry holiday glow, en route to a religious retreat and skiing in the eastern New Mexico mountains.
Over a tight, two-lane bridge about 10 miles east of Fort Sumner, John Roberts, a postal clerk and the 38-year-old driver of the lead bus, squeezed the vehicle past an oncoming tractor-trailer carrying cattle. He thought it was moving too fast. A moment later, in the rear-view mirror, he saw sparks light up the night, "like a flashbulb going off," he would say later. In the flash, Roberts witnessed the behemoth cattle truck and the trailing bus crash with such ferocity that the collision ripped the bus frame from its body.
Roberts pulled over. He and some of the passengers ran back into the dark, 26-degree night, and on that lonely stretch of U.S. 60-84, hundreds of miles away from home, they came upon a horrific scene: The cattle truck had sideswiped the bridge railing and then jackknifed, whipping its long trailer into the bus with deadly force, penetrating the bus's first four rows of seats, according to a court document.
"It mashed the front end of the bus like an accordion," said Robert Wesson, who was on the bus that night and suffered serious injuries.
Nineteen people died in the crash, including 16 teenagers, most of them students at Crockett High School, lifelong pals and neighbors from close-knit enclaves near West Ben White Boulevard and Manchaca Road. Seventeen others were injured.
Two families lost two children in the accident, and four of the dead had lived on one South Austin street. Eighteen-year-old Frank Estes, an only child, became an orphan; his father, Jerry, 41, was driving the bus, and his mother, Gloria, 42, was sitting nearby.
The tragedy rocked Austin (population about 250,000) and drew it closer together when it wasn't the big city it is today, before Formula One and food trailers, before smart growth and smartphones. South Austin had its own vibe and small-town rhythms, and for many of the teens aboard the buses, a good time was the Friday night pizza and Ping-Pong social at Woodlawn Baptist on Manchaca Road.
The Vietnam War was ongoing. Still, "it was a different time then," Susan Arnold, another crash survivor, said. "Life was pretty simple in the early 1970s."
The accident made national headlines. Walter Cronkite talked about it on the evening news. Four days later, 5,000 people streamed into Municipal Auditorium for services for 14 of the 19 victims. Fourteen caskets lined the front of the auditorium, and former President Lyndon Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, were among the mourners. Many, if not most, South Austin businesses closed their doors for the solemn occasion.
Time can dull memories, smooth the once-jagged edges of pain. But for the survivors, the tragedy is unshakable, always back there somewhere.
"Even today, 40 years later, we talk about it like it was yesterday. It's been a part of all of our lives," Arnold said.
Survivors describe the outlines of terrifying, heart-wrenching scenes — the cries for help, the heroic, frantic efforts to comfort and tend to the injured, the limp and lifeless bodies tangled in the heap. The collision sent luggage hurtling from the back of the bus and wrenched seats loose from the floor moorings, pinning the victims.
"You knew friends were dying," Wesson said.
Perhaps no one is more circumspect about reliving that night than John Roberts. "It just stirs things up that I don't think people want to go back into anymore," he said.
He saw a lot of brutal things. So did his children Cathleen and James, who were with him that night.
An ex-Marine and the church's bus driver for 12 years, Roberts had sensed the impending crash because he thought the tractor-trailer was barreling too fast over the bridge, too close to the concrete railing.
After coming to a stop, Roberts warned his passengers to steel themselves because there would probably be dead and injured people in the crash. "I told them, 'There's a horrible accident back there. If you can't stand this kind of trauma, don't get off.' The older ones got off with me."
In the bolt to the crippled vehicle, screams pierced the silent night. The injured were in shock; Roberts figured there were mass casualties.
"I was running around everywhere," he recalled. Assisting those who were seriously injured and bleeding heavily was paramount. From trying to stem the bleeding to keeping the victims warm, no act was too small. The older boys helped pull bodies out of the bus and laid them alongside a culvert, covering them with coats and blankets. Remarkably, in those tense moments, no one said a word.
"It was all working as a team," Roberts said. "We all knew what to do."
"Kids had to step up and do things that you wouldn't expect kids to have to do," said Kim Tomlin, a passenger on Roberts' bus who was Kim Johnson back then. Her boyfriend, Keith Tomlin (they would later marry), was the first student to enter the crippled bus. He worked closely with Roberts to help the injured, drawing on his recent medic training and his work with an ambulance company.
After the seriously injured had been taken to a Clovis, N.M., hospital, Roberts, back on his bus, took the students who didn't require hospitalization to the First Baptist Church in Fort Sumner, which provided food and lodging. Roberts talked to the Woodlawn pastor by phone and kept him abreast of developments. Over the phone, Roberts consoled distraught parents, and he met with others who rushed to New Mexico after learning of the crash. Roberts said he tried soothing the emotional pain of the kids who were stunned and grieving. The next day on a Clovis tarmac, waiting to board a plane home with the survivors, his own grief caught up with him, cascading to the surface. "I lost it," Roberts said.
Now a security guard, Roberts teaches Sunday school at Woodlawn, where he is a deacon and where a memorial of granite and stone stands in the church courtyard. Roberts still stops and reads the names on the plaque. He knew all of the victims, and it hurts him, he says, to have seen them hurt and dying.
"It shouldn't have happened. That's what I think about when I think about the accident," Roberts said. "It just shouldn't have happened."
There were no crisis intervention teams in 1972.
"We only had each other and our faith to help us through that tough time," said Guy Taylor, a Crockett High junior who lost close buddies in the crash, including 15-year-old twins Jimmy and Johnny Reeves. He played in the band with the Reeves boys, went to church with them and went on double dates with their girlfriends.
"Your mind was obsessed with many questions, 'Why would God have allowed this?' " Taylor said.
Now an adjunct professor of criminal justice at Central Texas College and living in Marble Falls, Taylor, 57, said he had to wrestle, too, with something else: He would have been on the trip had he not decided at the eleventh hour to work with his dad to make some extra cash. Had he gone, surely he would have sat in the front of the bus, his usual spot because he was prone to motion sickness.
"Would I have been killed, or (been) on the other bus?" Taylor said.
Like all young people, he and his classmates thought they were bulletproof. When death came so jarringly, they were ill-equipped to cope.
"We still have problems with it today," Taylor said.
One moment, 17-year-old Robert Wesson saw the flash of sparks outside the bus's left side. The next, his face slammed into the seat in front of him. Sucked under the seat, his face hit the seat's metal bar with such force it knocked out his front teeth. With glass in his eye and in the daze of a concussion, a broken hip and a broken nose, Wesson crawled through the wreckage and its cave-like darkness.
"I could see lights at the end of the bus, and I was trying to get through it all to get out," Wesson said recently. He would come upon people he knew, unable to discern why they were asleep or not moving. One girl shouted for help getting a seat off her.
When the crash occurred, Wesson had been sitting across the aisle from Jimmy Reeves. "Everybody knew somebody who died in that crash. The whole school was devastated," said Wesson, 57, who now lives outside Joplin, Mo., where he owns a leather and shoe repair shop.
"I think all of us were pretty keen on each other," Wesson said. A junior at the time of the crash, he was in auto mechanics and loved hot rods and dating girls, water skiing, fishing and hunting. He and Guy Taylor, also a fan of muscle cars, were in the Texans, a Crockett service and spirit group.
Wesson was hospitalized for weeks and missed funeral and memorial services. When he returned to Crockett, he couldn't help but notice the empty chairs at empty desks, where his fallen classmates had sat.
The crash, Wesson said, is not something he lives with on a daily basis. "I try not to," he said.
Arnold was Susan Allen then, a 14-year-old freshman at Crockett who played the piano and dreamed of making the tennis team. She and her friends had eagerly anticipated the trip, which drew so much interest that Woodlawn Baptist Church leased a second bus to accommodate everyone. According to court documents, the leased vehicle was an activity bus similar to a school bus.
Woodlawn was a magnet for young people in the close-knit community. "The church was real popular," Arnold recalled. "We had a Friday evening Great Hall there, where we played Ping-Pong and board games and things like that."
Arnold has no memory of the crash. It knocked her unconscious, and when she came to, she didn't know where she was or what had happened.
Emerging from that fog, the answers became obvious as she gazed at the shattered window beside her; it resembled a kaleidoscope. Arnold felt something pushing down firmly, harshly, against her back. It was one of the seats that had come off the floor; in the chaos, the passengers grabbed whatever perch they could to stay on their feet and scramble out the rear of the bus. Someone helped Susan get out. She suffered a broken collarbone and ribs, broken bones in her feet and a large gash on her forehead.
"They were just trying to lay us out on the sleeping bags or blankets until the ambulances could get there. It was cold," she said.
Her brother Bob, who was on the bus driven by Roberts, helped carry the injured.
Late into the night of the crash, families gathered at the church, where the Rev. James Abington, the Woodlawn pastor (since deceased), somberly announced the names of the dead as they were confirmed.
The crash became a topic of conversations on Facebook as the 40th anniversary approached. Arnold was struck by the emotions, so raw even 40 years later. Talking about tragedy is part of healing, she reasoned.
Arnold, now a credit union branch manager in Florida, said it is difficult to fathom that there was no counseling then.
"This is a church, and we were all Christians. We all know that the (victims) had a relationship with Jesus Christ and were in heaven," Arnold said. "Still, you're 14 or 15 years old, and 19 people just died."
You never get over tragedy as much as you learn to live with it. On the day the nation reeled from the unfathomable news that a gunman had killed 26 people, 20 of them children, at a Connecticut school, dozens gathered in Austin under a somber gray sky and the twisting, yawning oaks in the Crockett High School courtyard for some healing of their own, of wounds 40 years old.
Some who survived the accident or who lost loved ones formed a circle and held hands as the school choir sang "Lean on Me," and hundreds of students watched quietly. Some fought back tears. The circle included Frank Estes, who lost his entire family that night. He wore a thin, peaceful smile.
The story goes that the young people on the Woodlawn bus had been singing the 1972 pop hit with its lyrics about dealing with pain and sorrow in the moments before the crash. After the accident, some took it as a sign that they would need to come together in the face of tragedy.
"Lean on me, when you're not strong
And I'll be your friend
I'll help you carry on"
Estes had committed to a life of ministry a year before the crash. He made good on the promise. Now a pastor at Houston's West Oaks Fellowship Church, which he founded, he led a stirring prayer, asking God to help those still hurting emotionally and physically and asking survivors to be grateful to God for the time they had with those they loved. "They brought so many blessings, so much joy," Estes said.
In an interview later, Estes said it's impossible to make sense of unthinkable tragedy.
"What we have to understand," he said, "is that even though it causes great pain, there is still a God that watches over us and there is still an answer for us. I'm just not sure we can comprehend it in this life."
Information from: Austin American-Statesman, http://www.statesman.com