Skip to Content

Martinez, CA School Bus Crash Tragedy, May 1976

HEARTBREAK IN YUBA CITY -- BUS DISASTER AFTERMATH.

Yuba City -- School district headquarters became a disaster center, the scene of heartbreak for parents who learned their children were among those killed on a high school choir outing.
In the superintendent's office one middle-aged couple heard the worst -- their child was dead 80 miles away. The woman fell into her husband's arms and was overcome by grief. The father held a tight jaw.
Twenty-eight persons, including one choir director, were killed yesterday when a bus carrying the school choir smashed through a guardrail in Martinez and plummeted to the concrete 30 feet below.
"This tore the heart right out of the community," said one Yuba City resident.
KAREN HESS, student body president at Yuba City High School, said, "When the students found out, they were shocked, crying and just wandering around the campus."
Among the students was one set of twins and maybe two, a local reporter said.
An emergency bank of telephones flashed urgently with other parents and friends desperate for information from the scene of the accident.
Some parents could not sit by. They boarded a plane and flew to the Concord airport near the crash site and hospitals where survivors were taken.
The tragedy occurred at mid-morning as the youngsters from Yuba City High School in the Sacramento Valley were en route to Orinda for a performance.
The big yellow school bus has just crossed the Martinez-Benicia bridge over San Francisco Bay and was leaving the freeway to make a rest stop. The California Highway Patrol said the driver lost control of the chartered bus while negotiating a sharp turn on a highway off-ramp. The bus' roof was flattened when it landed on the hard-packed earth, crushing victims in their seats.
Twenty-six of the victims died at the scene of the crash. Police said one other person died on the way to a hospital and another died at one of the hospitals where the injured were rushed by more than 20 ambulances summoned to this suburb east of San Francisco.
It took two cranes to turn over the vehicle, and debris from the bus and personal belongings from the victims were piled nearby.
N. W. STIVER, deputy director of the Contra Costa County Office of Emergency Services, said he was on the scene when they lifted the bus.
"They had to inch it up, a little bit at a time. A body dangled out, one leg in one direction, another the other way."
"We have trains that come by and bump each other when they connect and make a loud noise," said KARLA ACKERMAN, 22, who lives near the fatal roadway. "That's exactly what it sounded like when the bus hit."
Rescue workers were at the scene within minutes, cutting through the jagged wreckage to reach the trapped victims. The dead were wrapped in white sheets and placed on the blood-stained ground where the bus came to rest. Several Roman Catholic priests administered last rites.
"It looked like a battlefield," said one of the priests, the REV. THOMAS HAYES. "The victims all were wearing casual attire and looked like they were on an outing -- it was tragic."
An emergency center set up downtown was besieged by distraught parents seeking word of their children.
"My daughter is one of them," sobbed one father. "I think she's dead. She was only 16 years old ...."
"Everybody was in critical condition," said MARY DUNTEN, information officer for Contra Costa County. "The bus was crushed so much that there wasn't anyone uninjured."
State School Supt. WILSON RILES said, "I am deeply grieved by this tragic occurrence and my heart goes out to the parents of these young people. California is a sad place today."
Rescue officials said they believed the bus was carrying 53 persons, including the driver and the wife of the faculty adviser to the Yuba City High School choir. But in the confusion that followed the tragedy, the officials said two or three students may have decided at the last minute not to make the trip -- placing the total number of passengers in question.
In addition to those on the 26-year-old yellow bus, another student and the group's adviser were reported to be traveling in a car. The adviser, choral director DEAN ESTABROOK, went into shock at the sight of the disaster, police said.
The driver of the chartered bus was EVANS PROTHERO, 49, according to an official of Student Transportation Lines in Marysville, a neighboring community to Yuba City is the fertile farmland north of Sacramento. He was in semi-critical condition with a lacerated back and liver at Veterans Administration Hospital after undergoing surgery.
The bus line official, HERB BROWN, said the bus had been inspected by the Highway Patrol within the past 30 days. Its rear tires were recaps, he said, but the front tires were not, in accordance with state law.
But an official of the California Highway Patrol said the bus, built in 1950, was last inspected on May 12, 1975. A minor defect -- loose seat fasteners -- was found and corrected, Insp. EDWARD JELICH said.

Daily Review Hayward California 1976-05-22

CASUALTY LIST TOLD
Martinez (AP) -- Here are the names of persons killed when a charter bus crashed off a freeway off-ramp near here Friday, as released by the Contra Costa County coroner's office. All are from Yuba City.
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 EAGLE, 17.
SHARLENE ENGLE, 17.
PAM ENGSTROM, 18.
CRISTINA ESTABROOK, a music teacher and the only adult killed in the crash. No age available.
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.

The Times San Mateo California 1976-05-22

Comments

Twins

Sharlene and Carlene Engle are twin sisters. The casualty list above mistakenly lists Carlene's surname as Eagle. They were born together and died together, let's not separate them here.

The teacher who passed away

The teacher who passed away in the crash is my great aunt.

I remember this horrible

I remember this horrible accident. I lived in Vallejo at the time while my husband was in the Navy. I remember passing that off ramp many times and after the accident could never pass there without thinking of those poor kids and teachers that were lost and the injured there. Never forget. I am sorry that they never fixed that off ramp. They should have. God Bless.

One of those days I will never forget

I was a student at Yuba City High School, a sophmore. I was in music theory class that day..one of the last periods that afternoon when we heard the news.. The theory class, usual full of choir kids was down to three or four of us..not choir members. Most of those choir kids didn't come back..some I knew well..some not at all, one my next door neighbor, Marla Azim.
I joined choir the next school year..got to know Mr. Estabrook well, a wonderfull, caring man. What he and all the others went through..I can't imagine.

I lived across the street

I lived across the street from where this happened.
I was 11 years old at the time, and remember wondering "why is that off-ramp so sharp ? "
It was dangerous THEN, and has NOT changed since.
Another tragedy waiting to happen.

Danielle

DEAREST PAT;
IT IS APRIL 4 2011, AND I JUST CAME ACROSS YOUR BEAUTIFUL MEMORY OF US AND OUR DANIELLE.AFTER ALL THESE YEARS ITIS STILL VERY HARD TO BELIEVE THAT THIS HORRIBLE THING HAPPENED. WE SOMETIMES THINK THAT IF WE HAD NOT LEFT N.H. WE WOULD STILL HAVE HER.PART OF YOU DIES WHEN YOU LOSE A CHILD. THANK YOU FOR YOUR PRAYERS I AM SURE THAT GOD TOOK US IN HIS CARE OR WE WOULD NOT HAVE MADE IT ALONE. I HOPE YOU AND YOURS ARE WELL. I TURNED 75 IN MARCH . CANT BELIEVE I'M THAT OLD. WEBOTH HAVE A FEW HEALTH PROBLEMS BUT ARE HANGING IN THERE. WE HAVE NO ALTERNATIVE. FORGIVE THE MISTAKES I DON'T DO THIS VERY OFTEN.
kEEP IN TOUCH ------ LOVE, CLAUDETTE

We're at < claudal@ccxn.com >

bus accident

Hi Pat,

I remember you well. Your strong love and support for me and my family made this all bearable. I will never forget you, and would love to hear how you are doing.

Ann Marie

The Bus Crash of May 1976

I was a Music Major with Cristina Cadena Estabrook at San Jose State University. She was a great musician. Even after all these years I can still hear her playing the piano in my head. When I moved here 3 years ago, I thought wow this is where Cris once lived and taught school which she loved. She lived and loved music.
Vivian

I was a member of the

I was a member of the Benicia High school choir on May 21, 1976. Our group would also travel by bus. We were shocked and saddened by the loss of so many beautiful souls. I still say a silent prayer for them when I pass by. They are remembered.

My mother died in November

My mother died in November of 2008 and the memories of this crash came back to me in such force. That is because my mother was the Nurse at the door of the bus doing triage. She worked at the emergency room at the Contra Costa medical hospital in Martinez and was first on site. Unfortunately she was also photographed, and it appeared on many newspapers (which she threw away). This event affected my mother more than any other event I remember as a child. It hurt her to the core and she prayed for all those children every night. I just thought that those of you in Yuba City should know that some of us have not forgotton you and you are always in our prayers.

Now I am going to get on my soap box. After that accident, we all thought that the ramp would be "fixed". It was dangerous to begin with, but they never fixed it. I don't live in Contra Costa County any longer, but REALLY, why didn't you fix the ramp!



article | by Dr. Radut