Years before disturbed, gun-toting killers began charging into schools, stores and other venues, many Rio Grande Valley families learned the bitter pain of losing a large number of children in a single, devastating blow.
Thirty years ago, on Sept. 21, 1989, a school bus packed with 81 students headed to Mission schools collided with a commercial truck and veered into an abandoned caliche pit in Alton. The bus plunged 40 feet and sank into about 10 feet of water. Twenty-one junior and senior high school students died, another 64 were injured.
The area would never be the same. It remains the worst school bus tragedy in Texas history. Entire Valley families lost their next generation, perhaps the very future of their bloodlines, on that September morning. They are left with happy memories of their children, horrific memories of the tragedy, and thoughts of what the victims might have become as adults.
The Alton bus crash isn’t the only tragedy that darkens the first part of every September. We join the rest of America in remembering the thousands lost in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in New York, and we also pay our eternal respects to the eight people who died four days later in the partial collapse of the Queen Isabella Causeway over the Laguna Madre. The crest of the bridge fell after a chain of barges struck one of the support structures. Drivers, unable to see that the top part of the bridge was missing, plunged into the water below.
We’ll always wonder if any of those victims might have become a great statesman, inventor of business leader, or contributed in more subtle ways in their respective communities.
We hope the victims’ families can take some solace in knowing that their sacrifice has saved unknown numbers of lives by prompting new procedures and safety measures.
Bus designs were changed as a result of the Alton crash, some mandated by law. Exits were added to the buses, including on the roofs, giving riders more escape options. Windows are easier to remove and larger, to make it easier for people to pass through them. Guardrails and other barriers are more common on our nation’s roads, both rural and urban, and more abandoned mining pits have been filled in rather than left open.
Likewise, the causeway, which has been renamed the Queen Isabella Memorial Bridge, was fitted with structural changes that make it stronger, and warning systems that would alert drivers of a breach they wouldn’t be able to see until it was too late. The channel under the bridge was redesigned, and navigation rules were changed for the Texas Intracoastal Waterway.
After both events, emergency response teams saw the need for better training and specialized equipment, which has been utilized in more recent accidents.
And of course, federal changes prompted by the 9/11 attacks affect air travelers and others.
Nothing will take away the pain that these September tragedies have caused. We hope, however, that the knowledge that their loss has improved safety measures and surely saved lives will in some way temper the sorrow that we all share.