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19 Die as School Bus, Hit by Truck, Sinks in Watery Pit

September 22, 1989|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | Times Staff Writer

ALTON, Tex. — At least 19 students died and dozens more were injured when their fully loaded school bus plunged into a water-filled gravel pit Thursday morning after it was was hit by a truck carrying soft drinks.

The bus, on its way to nearby Mission junior and senior high schools, had just picked up two more students when it was hit by the truck. Many of the students were standing in the aisles. Initial reports were that the blow by the truck was glancing, perhaps because bus driver Gilbert Pena was swerving to avoid the collision.

The bus, possibly carrying as many as 80 students, went flying into the unbarricaded gravel pit just beside the road, plunged 40 feet to the water, flipped upside down and came to rest on its side. It then sank and was completely under water.

Screaming children trapped in the bus struggled to get out through open windows and the bus door. Many of those who did get out stood on the bus and waited for help to arrive.

The collision was the worst accident involving a school bus in Texas history and the third-worst school bus accident ever recorded.

"I just freaked out," said Alex DeLeon, 18, as he described the bus falling headlong as he held tight to the seat in front of him. He said he grabbed his sister, Regina, pushed her out the window and then pulled himself free. "I was on the outside in a second."

Many others did not make it, including Raul Flores, who had not planned to go to school, but his mother had insisted. In the aftermath of the crash, the boy's mother wept and said it was her fault that her son was dead.

Another mother had to be taken by ambulance from the crash site after she saw the bodies of her two teen-age daughters pulled from the bus.

A young man walked up to DeLeon as he stood in front of the Mission Hospital Thursday afternoon. The two shook hands and then DeLeon shook his head.

"Your brother didn't make it, man," DeLeon said.

The young man, sobbing, with shoulders drooping, walked slowly back to his car.

Nearby, David Valadez complained bitterly about what he thought was inaction by police officers and firemen at the scene, saying that he saw only one policeman swim to the bus while others only urged the students to grab ropes that had been tossed over the steep rocky cliff. He said also that medical care was not administered quickly enough.

"I know a lot of kids who could have survived if they had been given (cardiopulmonary resuscitation)," said Valadez, who rushed to the scene because he feared his children were on the bus. They weren't, because his wife had taken them to school.

"This is America, and this shouldn't happen. You had a lot of people in shock and the police were not doing anything to treat it," he said.

Several others echoed Valadez's complaints, saying that Lt. Rudolfo Reyes of the Alton Police Department was the only policeman who initially went in the water to pull the children out. Reyes said he did go down a ladder that was already in place when he arrived but was reluctant to say anything more about the matter.

"There's not much I can say about that," he said. "The citizens and children of Alton are our responsibility."

The accident occurred about 7:40 a.m. at a spot where two arrow-straight roads intersect in this rural area dotted with orange groves. The truck, driven by a man identified as Ruben Perez of Mission, was on one road and the bus was on the other. Texas Highway Patrol Sgt. Dave Baker said that the accident was still under investigation and no charges have been filed.

Baker said also that a team from the National Transportation Safety Board was en route to conduct its own investigation. He said he had heard reports that Perez said his brakes had failed when he tried to stop at the intersection.

DeLeon and other survivors said the truck driver ran a stop sign. The truck remained alongside the road after the accident.

Roads were dry and the weather was clear at the time of the crash.

"We're going to look at everything from front to back," Baker said.

When police officers and ambulances arrived, the students, ranging in age from 12 to 18, were taken to several area hospitals, and a command post was set up at the Mission Community Center. One officer estimated that at least 125 emergency vehicles were used during the day.

Lists of the students were compiled, one of the living and one of the dead. As relatives poured into the center, they were told to go either to a hospital or to a temporary morgue to help identify the bodies.

Women wailed in abject grief when told to go to the morgue. And, at the hospitals, more relatives crowded into the lobbies, waiting for news of their kin.

"It's been a nightmare," hospital worker Maria Garza said.

It has been a bad year for the people of the Lower Rio Grande Valley and the string of towns adjacent to the Mexican border. Last summer, a department store collapsed in Brownsville, killing 14 people and injuring 47. Then Hurricane Gilbert, one of the worst in memory, hit the valley last fall, followed by the discovery this spring of a string of ritualistic murders in nearby Matamoros, Mexico.

As the day went on, counselors and ministers visited the families of the dead, while the curious tried to talk their way past police barricades to the crash site. The last of the bodies was brought up by divers about two hours after the wreck.

The nation's worst school bus accident occurred in 1976, when a bus plunged off a freeway ramp, killing 28 Yuba City, Calif., high school students and a teacher. In 1959, 27 people were killed when a bus went into a creek in Prestonsburg, Ky.

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