Author presents book on Alton bus crash as part of museum speaker series

EDINBURG – Nearly three decades since the Alton school bus crash, a local teacher and author looks back on its impact on school bus safety and the fallout following the tragedy.

In 1989, a Dr. Pepper truck collided with Mission School bus no. 6 at 7:34 a.m., propelling it into a caliche pit filled with water. About 80 middle school and high school students inside the bus struggled to open the windows as the murky water quickly filled the bus. Twenty-one students drowned that morning.

Donna High School social studies teacher Juan Carmona presented findings for his book, “The Alton Bus Crash,” to a room full of students, community members and history enthusiasts at the Museum of South Texas History Sunday afternoon. The tragedy led to a change in policy, and the ensuing lawsuits changed the economic status of the survivors and those affected by the tragedy.

Carmona has an academic background in history along with a personal interest in the topic.

“It left a huge scar for a whole generation of people and it really shouldn’t be forgotten…,” Carmona said. “But it’s a major story in our history, what happened there affected the whole nation.”

There are fences built and other safety measures implemented in the area that weren’t there before, he said. Alton used to have other similar pits, but those are also now better protected with stoplights and barriers to prevent future accidents like this one.

The new measures have saved lives, he said.

Carmona sifted through old newspaper articles, conducted interviews and combed through documents to write his book.

The author recounted the story of a student who went back to the bus to rescue his brother, but did not come back out.

“That was really very hard to hear,” he said, noting he has two sons.

Carmona gave an overview of the history and talked about his motivation to follow the tragic event as part of the museum’s Sunday Speaker Series. He was a sophomore in high school during the time of the collision and it piqued his interest over the years.

Carmona also holds a master’s degree in American History and teaches dual-enrollment history through South Texas College.

“I’m a historian and this is a historic incident, and I find it tragic that…it would be forgotten, and the other part is that the buses we ride, our children ride in all over the nation, are safer because of this,” he said in his remarks.

As the session came to a close, a presenter asked how many people in the room were students. Nearly half of the audience raised their hands.

He said he felt glad with the turnout and that when he mentions the story to many of his students, many of them are not aware of the event.

“I don’t want it to die. It’s an important story,” he said.

Carmona also signed books from the audience, as attendees chatted and asked questions. The lessons of thirty years ago reverberate today, he said.

“We really need to remember our history. Our history is not just in the past, we live in it… kids live in it every day they ride a bus, we live in the history of things that happened before us and we should never forget it, especially something as tragic as that,” Carmona said after the presentation.