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Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Towner Bus Tragedy, March 26, 1931

There are many stories my mother told me as a child. Some were serious, some were funny, some were serious but we made them funny. Some, like the one she told of the Towner Bus Tragedy never fail to strike a nerve deep in my heart.

Today is a day of irony for me. I don't always pay attention to the weather forecast but something told me today to listen when they said a blizzard is coming. I spent the morning making sure the animals had food and shelter. Unless you have experienced the blinding snow and howling winds it is hard to fully appreciate Mother Nature's wrath. Within minutes, in whiteout conditions, you could find yourself lost in your own backyard. In the old days folks tied a rope from the barn to the house so they could find their way after tending the animals.

I have a young boy in my life I call my "grandson." My son Nate dated his mother for a couple years. They have since broken up, but I love little Ezekiel, EZ for short, like he is my own. I make it a point to spend as much time with him as I can. Today I was asked to pick him up at preschool.

On the way home I decided perhaps we better go by the store and pick up some candles in case the power went out. While visiting about the weather with the clerk, he told me today was the anniversary of the Towner Bus Tragedy. I didn't realize that others were aware of the tragedy that happened in 1931, 33 years before I was born.

My mother was 7 years old when it happened and it made quite an impression on her. As a child she told us many times about the tragedy and showed us newspaper articles about it. We visited the memorial to the victims. When my son was in elementary school his class was visited by Ms. Georgene Pearson, author of "A Light in the Window," a book about the tragedy.

Here is the version of the tragedy from the Holly, Colorado Historical Society:

"In the frigid winter of 1931, a March blizzard trapped 20 children on a school bus between the rural Colorado towns of Holly and Towner, near the Kansas border. Five children died from exposure, as did the bus driver, Carl Miller.

The makeshift bus, a 1929 Chevy truck with a homemade wooden topper on the back and two wooden benches inside, had no heater. Two of the back windows were broken and patched with cardboard.

Miller was taking the children home when the gray skies turned so white he couldn't see the hood. The bus hit a ditch and became wedged. Snow poured through one window. Miller couldn't get the engine to turn over again. He started a fire in the lid of a milk can, but the damp textbooks and benches were poor fuel.

The temperature dipped to 20 below zero, and 70-mph winds persisted.

Miller tried to keep the children moving to prevent hypothermia, but a 13-year-old girl froze to death after 24 hours on the bus. Like many of the children, she wore no coat that day.

Desperate, Miller struck out on foot. Searchers later found his frozen body in a field.

"His hands torn from clinging to barbed wire fences to guide his way, his hat and overcoat gone, and his suit coat unbuttoned, the body of Carl Miller, driver of the ill-fated Towner school bus, was found lying in a field three miles from where he had started to go for help," the Rocky Mountain News reported.

The remaining children would see a second and then a third classmate expire before rescuers finally arrived, 33 grueling hours after the bus had plunged into the ditch. Two more children succumbed after the rescue."

So it is ironic today that 78 years later on the same date, another blizzard rages through the eastern Colorado plains.

I am grateful today that I have my children, and loved ones safe by my side. But I will never forget the sacrifice of Mr. Carl Miller. It is a reminder to me of the responsibility school bus drivers take when they get behind the wheel with our most vulnerable young citizens. So on this 78th anniversary of the Towner Bus Tragedy, I will take this opportunity to ask you all to salute the school bus drivers of America.


Anonymous said...

To all,

I am Shane Miller, the Great grandson of Carl Miller, I just like to say that I appreciate you remembering my Great Grandfather. To let you know I still honor my grandfather by serving in the United States Marine Corp for the past 22 years. Serving while the gulf war, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Thank You
GySgt Shane Lee Miller

Lorraine said...

GySgt Miller,

Thank you for taking the time to write..but more importantly, thank you for serving our country and honoring your great-grandfather with your lengthy service in the Marines.

I would love to visit with you more. Please email me at wellingtoncoach@yahoo.com.


Anonymous said...

My name is Michael Ome Untiedt. My father, Ome, uncles Bryan and Arlo, and aunt Evelyn Untiedt were all on the bus. Arlo perished from exposure. I spent my early life hearing about the heroics and tragic death of Mr. Miller. I once was taken to the site of the tragedy, and was shown the location where Mr. Miller's body was found. He had tremendous endurance and strength and died in a valiant effort to save the children. As heroic was the staunch courage Mrs. Miller showed in consoling the community while suffering the death of her daughter and husband.

In the 1970's my uncle Virgil Untiedt located Mrs. Miller living I believe in Arkansas and visited her on several occasions. Sadly we have since loss all contact with that family.

Barb said...

Gunny, you may or may not remember meeting me last night, Barb, at the Mine Shaft. I told you I would check this out. I also thank you for serving our country & I am going to buy this book.
Thanks for telling me this story. Semper Fi

Suzanne said...

I'm a 5th generation Coloradoan from Southwestern Colorado. I just saw a documentary about this on PBS a few nights ago and it really got me. The bravery and gumption of those kiddos who survived is nothing short of awe inspiring. I plan to go visit the memorial as this story had such a tremendous impact on me. As for the bus driver....what a remarkable man and I have no doubt that he sits with angels in heaven, as do those little ones who were lost.