Thursday, September 21, 1989 – and the memory of one of the deadliest school bus accidents in Texas history – remains vivid to families, educators and local leaders who were there.
30 years ago, a Dr Pepper Truck collided with Mission Consolidated Independent School District Bus no. 6 at Bryan Rd. and 5 Mile Line, pushing the bus into an unfenced caliche pit filled with 10 feet of water. The accident resulted in the deaths of 21 junior high and high school students. The aftermath and resulting media attention came and went, but the crash’s legacy lives on.
Rafael Cantu had just finished his first year as superintendent at MCISD when he got the call that morning. His wife, Dolores, was a teacher at Mission Junior High who lost four students in the accident.
“It’s something you’ll never forget,” Dolores said. “The whole Valley came together, and the car lights were on all over the Valley just to support.”
Rafael remembers driving to the scene with Robert Wicks, the assistant superintendent for business and finance at the time, and finding the bus underwater as first responders were diving in. The bodies of the students were laid out on the grass in a line, and he watched as the line grew.
“We saw some individuals running across the street, and we walked up to the rim of the caliche pit, and when you looked down you could see the bus submerged,” Rafael said. “You were able to see the number [of bodies] as they increased, and not being able to do anything… It was a very difficult time.”
The Cantus attended almost all the funerals of the students who passed. Dolores recalls walking into her third period class the next day, four students short.
“It was very hard being in that room with the children,” Dolores said, smiling as she described their presence in her classroom and their eagerness to learn.
Rafael noted that there was an immediate influx of first responders from across the RGV. After the crash MCISD received support from individual donors to help the families, and neighboring school districts offered assistance.
The football game scheduled for that week was cancelled, and a memorial was held in its place at Tom Landry Stadium. 10,000 people were in attendance.
The district was investigated to see if there was any culpability within their bus system. Rafael said that their big question was if there was anything the district could have done to prevent it.
“We had the National Transportation Safety Board from Washington come and investigate,” Rafael said. “We were fortunate that our people had carried out their assignments – buses were maintained.”
All MCISD buses were inspected, and it was shown that they were all well taken care of. The bus driver was also investigated, and it was shown that he was doing his job and was not under the influence of anything that would have contributed to the accident.
“What came to mind was the fact that you as an administrator want to make sure that you hire good, qualified personnel,” Rafael said. “And as sad as this event was, it did demonstrate that we had done a good job of hiring good administrators, good teachers, good support staff, counselors, nurses – they all responded and did what they had to do, and we appreciated that.”
The bus had landed in the water on its side, quickly filling with water. It settled at the bottom of the pit, with a foot of water above. The lack of emergency exits, along with the murkiness of the water in the pit, made it incredibly difficult for the students to escape.
“There wasn’t anything glaring where we could have prevented it,” Rafael said. “The only consolation, if there is a consolation, was that this was a secondary bus, that it was junior high and high school students that were in the bus and not one of our elementary buses, because when the accident happened, some of them were able to open the windows and get out. If it had been our elementary students, the number that would have perished would have been significantly more.”
Juan Carmona, a history teacher at Donna High School and dual enrollment professor with South Texas College, recently published a book entitled “The Alton Bus Crash” detailing the history of the accident and the legacy that resulted from it. He was a sophomore in high school when he found out about the crash. The research and testimony that it took to write the book took Carmona and his brother years.
“Most kids [today] wouldn’t know that the very buses they’re riding in are designed in result of a loss in life,” Carmona said. “A lot of people don’t want to talk about it, but the end result is it gets forgotten. These poor kids lost their lives. Things are better now, but we’ll never know what those 21 kids would have done with their lives.”
Carmona noted that the Alton Bus Crash had an impact not only in the RGV, but the entire country.
“Buses that we travel in today have been completely redesigned because of that accident,” Carmona said. “That’s why there are hatches on the roof, windows are open, they open wider, mid-sections open.”
Carmona added that the coroner ruled that the accident was survivable, but because the students couldn’t get out of the bus, they died.
“Laws were also put in to put barriers over open pits, because that thing was just completely open,” Carmona said. “In fact a couple of weeks before it [the accident], a couple of kids drove their car right into it, and one of them died. So people talked and said ‘we should do something about it,’ but nothing was done, then the bigger accident happened.”
Carmona’s book can be found at local Barnes & Noble stores or online via Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Rafael noted that the Alton Bus Crash proved that at the end of the day, everyone is family in Mission.
“It provides all of us with a reminder that we are a family,” Rafael said. “Something like this can happen at any time, and we have to be vigilant and careful and it’s something that we as an educational community can use to bring forth to our students the need to take every day seriously and to do the best we can.”
After the incident, Alton Memorial Junior High School was named after the students lost. This morning, the entire MCISD will stop what they’re doing and have a moment of silence to reflect on their memories and the lives cut short on Sept. 21, 1989, as well as celebrate the positive impact they had on the community and their families before their passing.
“We mourn the 21 youngsters that passed away, and feel for the other 60 or so students that were involved that went through such a traumatic experience,” Rafael said. “It’s something that you think about as you travel down the 5 Mile Line and you go past the scene. There’s always a sadness you feel for the families, and time does not erase it.”
The 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.
This article originally appeared in the Friday Sept. 20, 2019 issue of the Progress Times.