by Dan Dennison
On behalf of the 1971 GHS Football Memorial Foundation
Editor’s note: This story was first published on June 30.
Many people can point to at least one personal tragedy in their lives that ended up having a silver lining.
Most people don’t realize that a Sept. 11 Gunnison High School bus crash on Monarch Pass in 1971 initiated sweeping school bus safety measures.
A bus manufacturer began building what was known as the “Gunnison Package,” and had a similar accident happened today the outcome potentially could have been much less tragic.
Pat Macintosh is preparing to retire after serving his entire career as a fleet manager for Gunnison. Macintosh spent a career making police cars, fire apparatus and emergency vehicles safe.
He was a high school freshman and a junior varsity football player when he joined his teammates and coaches for the 60-mile drive over the 11,312-foot pass. The bus was taking them to their first game of the season, on the other side of the Continental Divide in Salida.
“It was a beautiful day,” Macintosh said. “I’d been wrestling with my friend Billy Miles and his mom then took us to catch the bus. It started out great.”
A half-century after an incident that defined life for the next 50 years for hundreds of people in Gunnison, some memories remain fresh, though emotions are less raw.
After the bus crested the top of Monarch Pass, Macintosh said, “The day kind of changed at that point.”
He described the transmission (standard transmission and two-speed axle) of the bus and what happened coming down the east side of the pass.
“When he (the driver) tried to shift it, it ended up being in the middle, so all you had to slow it down was the brakes. Coaches were on the floor trying to do something, like pull the emergency brake, which would just kill the engine.”
Macintosh was told there was a roar and coaches were trying to get players closer to the front of the bus to settle down.
He said he doesn’t remember any of that.
“I just remember we had trouble coming. We just picked up speed. At that time though, we were kids, we were bulletproof, and we were ready for a day of football.”
They never made it to the football field in Salida.
Five miles from the summit, the bus careened off U.S. 50, just beyond the tiny hamlet of Garfield.
It rolled several times, ending up on its top … the roof collapsed into the seats where nearly 50 kids and their coaches were sitting.
Macintosh said, “Our lives were changed permanently. There were a lot of good buddies on that bus and that was the last day we ever got to see them.”
The crash killed eight young players, ages 14-17, and the junior varsity team’s 28-year-old head coach, a father of two young daughters. It became Gunnison’s own version of 9/11.
The school board (disclosure: writer’s father was the board president) hired an engineer to come up with a better bus body.
Paul Medina was the RE-1J district transportation manager. “Wayne Body Co. came up with what they called the ‘Gunnison Package,’ which had twice as many roof and side posts to support the top of the bus, and added rivets, so on and so forth.”
Medina then served on a committee that looked at minimum standards for all school buses in Colorado.
“One of the things we looked at was the integrity of the bus in an accident. That resulted in the ‘load and rack test,’ which would not allow so much inflection in a rollover,” Medina said.
Ultimately, all school buses sold in Colorado had to meet the new specifications.
Today Paul Morgan oversees Gunnison’s school bus transportation system. He showed the sophisticated devices on modern buses that can slow it down on a mountain road.
“The bus that crashed in 1971 had a manual transmission and just regular brakes. The bus we are on now can stop or be slowed by two different engine retarders. By the parking brake, the automatic transmission and the regular brakes. We have so many ways to stop a bus going down a pass that were not available 50 years ago,” Morgan said.
These days, Gunnison continues to take school bus safety and the safety of its young people quite seriously.
The school district’s fleet is ultra-modern, and each bus is thoroughly inspected before it heads out on a route.
During annual bus safety week, required for all middle-school students, the two Pauls and Pat Macintosh often speak.
Morgan said, “We have the commitment of local taxpayers, of our board of education and of our superintendent to provide a very healthy budget for maintenance and to replace buses once they’re 5 or 6 years old.”
Macintosh said he believes the school bus safety innovations introduced after the 1971 accident and the efforts of the 1971 GHS Football Memorial Foundation will continue to honor the memories of the nine people killed on 9/11/71 for decades to come.