MCISD remembers the 21

Ciro Ochoa Jr. still can remember the face of every parent he saw in the aftermath of a bus accident that killed 21 students on a September morning 25 years ago.

After a temporary morgue had been set up to identify the bodies of students killed, Ochoa, then-vice president of Mission Consolidated Independent School District Board, sat in a back room of a community center with two lists of names as one-by-one parents came in to find out if their children were alive or dead. Also in the room were the chief of police, the mayor and a member of the clergy.

20140919 ALTON Bus-memorial 3499On one list were the names of children who lived and had been sent to area hospitals. On the second list were the names of students whose bodies had been identified at a nearby pavilion.

Each time a parent came in, Ochoa checked the survivor list first.

“It’s the hardest thing I ever had to do,” Ochoa said. “Every parent was hurting.”

Friday morning, Sept. 19, MCISD will hold a ceremony to remember the 21 students who died when a Dr. Pepper truck hit a school bus at the intersection of Mile 5 and Bryan Road, sending the bus into a caliche pit filled with water. About 60 students escaped through a single open window.

The remembrance ceremony is set for 9 a.m. at the Alton Memorial Jr. High School gymnasium. This school was named in memory of the students killed as a result of the accident that occurred on Sept. 21, 1989.

Students to be remembered are Maria Alfaro, Roberto Bazaldua Jr., Margarita Buentello, Carmen Canales, Elda P. Cruz, Raul Flores, Elizabeth Flores, Abdon Garcia, Armando Gonzalez, Ruby Lopez, Marta Amelia Lozano, Jose L. Ortega, Veronica Perez, Yesenia Perez, Roman Quintero, Apolonia Regalado, Maria Regalado, Anna Rodriguez, David Saenz, Michael P. Saenz and Alberto Vasquez.

The ceremony will be a time of reflection and a time to celebrate the lives of the children and the positive impact they had on their families and their community. Weather permitting, officials plan to end the ceremony with a butterfly release in the memorial garden at the AMJH campus.

The morning tragedy struck

That September morning in 1989, Cynthia Cantu-Del Bosque, a senior, had been running late for the bus, but she made it. She’d been up the night before studying for a test in trigonometry, and felt ready to ace it. She’d dressed up for the occasion in white pants, a fuchsia shirt and white shoes with rainbow colored stars on them.

The bus was near the end of its route, having picked up the Saenz brothers last near Bryan Road, and Cantu-Del Bosque said it was packed with students standing in the center aisle.

She had a seat on the right side of the bus and was still studying as it traveled west on Mile 5. To her left she heard a noise, but when she looked over, her view was blocked. She looked to her right and noticed the bus wasn’t facing the right direction.

That’s when she blacked out. When she woke up, it was dark, and she was under water.

That morning started out like any other day for then-Superintendent Rafael Cantu. He was in the office at around 7:30 when the superintendent for business received a call about a bus accident.

When the two arrived at the scene, Cantu remembers asking where the school bus was after he spotted the Dr. Pepper truck nearby. Then, he saw people running toward the gravel pit.

At the rim of the pit, Cantu looked down and saw the outline of a school bus under about a foot of water. Volunteer firefighters were attempting to pull students out of it. They carried the bodies to the side of the pit and put them in body bags.

“You could see and count the bodies that were being placed on the side of the bank,” Cantu said.

When Cantu-Del Bosque woke up, she could see light coming in through the windows on the left side of the bus, which was on its side. She didn’t know how to swim, but she made her way over to the one open window, but when she got her hands on it, she was pushed out of the way. Everyone was trying to get out of the single underwater exit.

“I was hoping that I could get some air in my hands, so I remember trying to put my hands together and trying to breath air, but I ended up drinking water, obviously,” Cantu-Del Bosque said. “I thought maybe I could have a miracle. I tried it again, and drank water again.”

She remembers being somewhat calm as she realized she was going to die. She said her prayers, thanked God for her life and surrendered.

In that moment, Cantu-Del Bosque was rescued from the water when a neighbor pulled her up by her hair. He had been on the side of the bus reaching for the window, grabbing at whatever he could find.

In turn, Cantu-Del Bosque was able to rescue her best friend at the time. Cantu-Del Bosque’s mom was a registered nurse and weeks prior to the accident, she happened to attend a CPR class with her mother. That CPR class saved her best friend’s life.

That morning Ochoa arrived at work at around 8 a.m. and the phones lines all were lit up. The first call he answered was from his father, who told him there had been an accident involving a bus. When he arrived at the scene, officers didn’t want to let him in the area, but Ochoa emphasized not only was he a member of the board, but he also was the Alton city attorney.

“I said, ‘I’m going to go, and if you feel you have to shoot me, shoot me,’” Ochoa remembered, adding that they let him pass, and as he did, he saw a bus filled with wet students driving away.

Cantu already was at the scene and the two got to work trying to get a list of everyone who had been on the bus. Parents also had arrived at the scene, and Cantu remembers literally having to tackle a couple of mothers who were running and ready to jump into the pit to try to save their children.

There was panic as officials tried to sort out who was on the bus, who had been taken to an area hospital and who hadn’t gone to school that day.

Eventually, parents were asked to go to the nearby community center and wait for news as the bodies were identified.

Cantu-Del Bosque asked to be placed on the bus headed for McAllen Medical because that’s where her mom works. There, her mom had been told her daughter was in an accident in which a bus had run into a ditch. It sounded minor, and she didn’t think much of it.

But as students began to arrive, word spread that there were fatalities, Cantu-Del Bosque’s mom described the longest elevator ride of her life as she descended to the emergency room to check on her daughter.

“When you go to take your administrative classes to get certified to be an administrator, that’s not one of the things they prepare you for.”

Ciro Ochoa Jr., Then-vice president of MCISD School Board

The aftermath

The football game scheduled the following Friday night was changed to a memorial. More than 10,000 people showed up to mourn and leaders from the community spoke. Valley residents were asked to turn their car lights on in remembrance, and almost all complied.

However, the next week, district leaders decided everyone needed to start moving forward and that week’s game was played as scheduled. At the time, Mission High School had a tradition of releasing balloons as its team was introduced. This week, however, it was decided that a black balloon would be released for each of the 21 students killed in the bus accident. Every five yards, someone stood with a balloon, ready to release it whenever that student’s name was called.

Ochoa was the public announcer at the game, and he did the honors. From the press box, he remembers expecting each of the balloons to take off one-by-one with the wind. That’s not what happened, though. Ochoa watched as all of the balloons gathered at the center of the field and floated out together.

“I don’t have an explanation,” he said. “I don’t know how. A lot of people noticed it, that they left together.”

Cantu remembers the investigations and requests that bombarded the district after the accident. Everyone banded together, he said, from teachers to administrators to counselors to nurses. Media from across the country was calling to ask questions and make requests for information.

The National Transportation Safety Board came in and started looking through the district’s bus maintenance records. They checked over the bus involved in the accident “from stem to stern,” Cantu said, adding that investigators also went over the personnel record of the bus driver. No wrongdoing was found on behalf of the school district.

Ochoa remembered a reenactment of the accident that showed if there had been six more inches of space, the bus wouldn’t have gone over the rim of that caliche pit.

In Cantu’s 34 years with MCISD, Sept. 21, 1989, is the one day he wishes he could go back and change, but he doesn’t know how. The district, he said, did everything right.

“Everything was according to how it had been for a long time. We’d been doing that same bus route every morning, going to the same places at the same speed and so forth,” Cantu said. “Twenty-five years later, it’s still a very tragic memory. You think about it, and of course, year after year on the anniversary, you watch TV and you see the bus being pulled out on the crane, and you relive that time.”

“I remember them coming to ask a question about where should we set up a temporary morgue and thinking, ‘When you go to take your administrative classes to get certified to be an administrator, that’s not one of the things they prepare you for.’”

Shortly after the accident, the president of Coca-Cola worldwide came to Mission and met with some of the families, who at the time were heartbroken and numb, Ochoa said. Attorneys soon came to town and things got crazy, said Ochoa, acknowledging that he himself is an attorney. Families took Coca-Cola to court and millions of dollars in settlements were awarded.

Expensive houses were built and members of some families began to abuse drugs and alcohol, some died as a result.

“A lot of those people were not ready to handle that kind of money, and they wasted it, and kind of feel like they lost their kid and at the end they got nothing,” Ochoa said. “They needed somebody to help them.”

It wasn’t the kind of help the board could provide, Ochoa said, and its members felt inadequate when trying to comfort families. Choking up, Ochoa said he and others tried to do the right thing.

“You’re on the school board and people give you the most important thing in their life, and they put them in your charge,” Ochoa said. “I just felt we let them down. I don’t know that there’s anything we could have done, but we let those people down.

“I’ve carried that with me. I think about those kids every year.”

It’s the thought of those 21 lives cut short that was the driving force for Cantu-Del Bosque to make sure she did something with her life.

Months after the accident, she checked into Charter Palms Behavioral Health System for a month and Coca-Cola footed the bill. She missed a month of her senior year, but she believes it was worth it. There, counselors had her talk about the accident over and over again until she could tell the story without crying. That’s why, she thinks, she’s able to talk about it today.

Cantu-Del Bosque eventually went to college and earned a law degree from the Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston. She’s married with two sons, aged 15 and 9.

Surviving the accident was her second chance at life, and Cantu-Del Bosque said she was determined not to waste it.

“Those children never got a chance to be married, they never got a chance to have children, to get an education, to go to college, to have a career, so I wanted to do those things, obviously for myself, but for them as well because I didn’t want it to be in vain,” she said.

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