By DAVID SCHOLZ
Forty years have passed but frozen in time are the faces of the 28 Yuba City Union High School students who perished in a local horrific school bus crash that made international headlines.
Black and white photographs adorned the permanent memorial at the Martinez Regional Shoreline Park last Saturday as local residents and first responders again marked the anniversary of the May 21, 1976, accident.
Along with personal recollections of that fateful day, speakers spoke of the invaluable improvements to infrastructure and emergency services that emerged from the tragedy.
According to media accounts at the time, the bus, carrying the school’s 53-member choir and two adult advisors, took the Marina Vista exit off I-680 after crossing the Benicia Bridge and crashed through a guardrail. The bus then plummeted 30 feet to the ground below, flipping onto its roof.
The choir was headed to Miramonte High School in Orinda where it was slated to participate in a choral exchange program.
Those at the scene recalled it not as “grotesque’’ but one of “serenity’’ as if the victims were acknowledging they knew they were in good hands with the emergency personnel who quickly arrived to do what they could.
In contrast to the sunny skies of 40 years ago, cool conditions and overcast skies, even a brief downpour, accompanied the latest anniversary observance at Waterfront Park, Saturday, May 21.
Martinez Mayor Rob Schroder, who was neither mayor nor even a Martinez resident when the accident occurred, regarded this anniversary on par with 9-11.
“Everyone remembers where they were on that day,’’ he said. Recalling that he was traveling in Europe with his wife, Schroder remembered reading about the crash on the front page of the London Times.
Sharing a proclamation of the city that remembered those who died and the victims who were spared, Schroder also noted the positives that came out of this painful episode, including the reconstruction of the Marina Vista exit to be “longer, flatter and safer.’’
Contra Costa County Assessor Gus Kramer, who was a Contra Costa Sheriff Coroner’s aide at the time of the crash, lamented the 28 young people and their advisor sadly paid the price for one individual’s negligence. “They were in the wrong place at the wrong time.’’
“Whenever I see a school bus, I still think of them,’’ he said.
The shortcomings and deficiencies for adequately responding to emergency situations also were revealed with the accident, but lessons were learned and today a first-rate system is in place.
“That day helped us to create partnerships with emergency management services,’’ said Patricia Frost, who spoke on behalf of Contra Costa County Health Services and Dr. William Walker, director of Emergency Medical Services.
But for all the memories shared during last weekend’s memorial observance, the increasing reality is there are generations that have grown up with little or no recollection of the magnitude of this disaster.
Deputy Coroner Tim Biggs noted he was in that company. But, citing a six-inch thick file of notes, documents, and photos in his office related just to this accident, he spoke of his efforts over the years to learn about the accident.
“Now when I walk down the hall and see the photos on the wall, I can’t help but be reminded,’’ he said.
So, voiced those in attendance on Saturday, it is important to remember for the benefit of the victims, and their families and friends, and first responders who were touched by this accident.
The younger generations were also there, trying to learn about the past.
Being of the same relative age as those who died drew Bryanna Shields and her friend to the memorial observance.
“It shows you never know what might happen, so you have to live in the moment,’’ she said.
Health issues precluded former Martinez Mayor John Sparacino, now in his early 90s, from attending. But with the assistance of his close friend Marty Ochoa, Sparacino’s prepared remarks echoed other presenters’ about the importance of keeping the promise of showing humanity, compassion, and grit that the city and its citizens exhibited in the wake of this tragic event.
“Today, you are keeping a promise made 40 years ago,’’ wrote Sparacino. “We will never forget these precious children and their sweet teacher.’’