Pain persists 25 years after deaths of 21 students

Pain persists 25 years after deaths of 21 students

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ALTON, Texas (AP) — In a matter of seconds 25 years ago, this rural town north of Mission changed forever.

A Dr Pepper truck crashed into a school bus, claiming the lives of 21 students of Mission's high school and junior high in the worst school bus crash in Texas history at the time. About 125 emergency vehicles from nearly every jurisdiction in the Rio Grande Valley responded to the crash, as did U.S. Border Patrol agents, that day's Monitor reported.

"I spent 34 years, approximately 7,100 days with the Mission school district," said Ralph Cantu, the Mission superintendent at the time. "And there's no doubt, of all those days, there's only one I wish I could relive and change the outcome of."

The outpouring of support in the tragedy's immediate aftermath wasn't limited to western Hidalgo County or Valley residents.

"We received cards from all over the country," Patricia O'Cana-Olivarez, then a junior at Mission High School, told The Monitor ( of McAllen. "It was surreal. And it was very surreal for a long time to come."

The Monitor ran front-page stories on the crash for a week straight. Media members from across the state descended on the town of less than 4,000 to report on the grisly scene. Lawyers came too. Some got rich in lawsuits that also netted new houses and cars for the families of the victims, but brought resentment from their neighbors who had previously joined them in grieving.

About 7:30 a.m. on Sept. 21, 1989, in a quiet corner of Hidalgo County, the brakes of a Dr Pepper truck failed, its driver would later say. The truck, heading north on Bryan Road, blew through a stop sign at 5 Mile Line and slammed into Mission school district bus No. 6.

The impact forced the bus — carrying 81 junior high and high school students — over an embankment and into a water-filled caliche pit. The bus, lying on its side, was completely submerged.

"There was a Dr Pepper truck on the side of the road, but there was no bus," Cantu said Friday, recalling his thoughts as he approached the scene of the accident.

Lying at the bottom of the pit on its right side, the bus' door would not open. Students and divers were able to open the emergency exit at the back of the bus, but the laws of physics wouldn't allow it to stay open, Cantu said.

Rescue efforts commenced, but under difficult circumstances. A scuba diver said the caliche — a rock that is used to improve dirt roads — clouded the water, further complicating rescues.

Heavy machinery struggled as well.

"Loose-leaf binders and backpacks floated away from the sunken vehicle as 10 cranes together tugged on it with no success," the day's Monitor reported.

Eighteen students — all between 12 and 18 years old — had died before The Monitor went to press that afternoon — Sept. 21, 1989. More than 50 were hospitalized. By the end of the counting in the days that followed, 21 children were dead.

"You began to get all kinds of situations that you really, in trying to be prepared to be a superintendent, that you really weren't prepared for," Cantu said. "I remember being asked where to set up a temporary morgue. Now you tell me: What education class do you think that I learned that from?"

The day of the crash, a Thursday, Cantu canceled the next day's football game.

"We've had a tragedy," he said at the time. "How can you be cheering at a football game when something like this has happened?"

The next day, McAllen and Pharr-San Juan-Alamo districts canceled their highly anticipated matchup at McAllen's stadium.

In place of the Mission game, an estimated 10,000 people — nearly triple Alton's population at the time — crammed into the school district's football stadium for a memorial service.

"It did bring this community to its knees," said O'Cana-Olivarez, now the Mission school board president. "But it also brought the entire Valley, and actually the nation — it touched a lot of people, because we did start receiving a lot of condolences from the entire nation. The Rio Grande Valley came together."

But that feeling didn't last.

"It showed the best side of people," Cantu said. "Then you began to get a little bit of kickback from the standpoint of, you might have someone who, in the spur of the moment, gave towards helping the families that lost loved ones. And all of a sudden, they found out that Coca-Cola had settled with these families for X amount of money. And then they, all of a sudden, it seemed like there was a little bit of resentment."

The Coca-Cola distributor paid out settlements to families of the victims: $4.5 million for every lost child. The bus manufacturer reportedly paid another $950,000. And injured children received between $500,000 and $900,000, according to Monitor archives.

Giant houses sprung up in the city. Alton residents reported their neighbors taking European vacations. In a tragically ironic twist three years after the crash, two survivors died when they crashed their brand-new sports car into a tree.

"That giving from the heart, because all of a sudden circumstances changed, that feeling changed," Cantu said.

On Sept. 19, the Mission school district held a 25-year memorial service at the school named in honor of the 21 students who died in the crash — Alton Memorial Junior High School.

The school opened in 2004, about 2 miles west on 5 Mile Line from the site of the accident.

A memorial — 21 white crosses and statue of Jesus — now sits at the northwest corner of the intersection of Bryan Road and 5 Mile Line.

At the ceremony, those in the audience and staff members in black dabbed tears from their eyes periodically.

Cynthia Del Bosque, who survived the crash that day as a Mission High senior, spoke during the program, appearing for the first time at a public event remembering the day that she could never forget.

"I think I was afraid of coming across some of the parents who I know are struggling and are experiencing turmoil and all," she said after the service. "I guess I felt like I couldn't give them any words that could console them."

Del Bosque, now an attorney and married mother of two, wasn't alone in not knowing what to say to the families of those who didn't escape.

"Even back then, you didn't know what the heck to say," Cantu said. "It was a real traumatic situation. It was just unbelievable."

Both Cantu and Del Bosque said they were glad they decided, despite their ambivalence, to participate in this year's ceremony.

As the years passed, the pain has subsided some.

"As they say, time heals wounds," Cantu said. "Not completely."

All of the survivors and witnesses interviewed for this story said the memory has faded from day-to-day thoughts, but it remains in the backs of their minds and can be easily triggered

"Certainly, the memory of it never goes away," Del Bosque said. "It's always tucked in the back of my mind and it stays pretty vivid."

Those who still live in Alton — now populated by about 10,000 people — can't escape that day in 1989, despite their wishes.

Margarita Ortega, the mother of Jose L. Ortega, who died at 15 in 1989, gathers every year with mothers of other victims to remember their lost sons and daughters, said Hector Ortega, a cousin of Jose.

"She never lets it forget," Hector Ortega said of his aunt.

Even if she could, she might not be able to.

"I mean, we have to pass by the memorial every day," Hector Ortega said. "I don't like thinking about it too much."


Information from: The Monitor,

Editor's note: This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Monitor of McAllen.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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