Alton volunteer firefighter Luis Guerrero was driving home after dropping off his wife at work the morning of Sept. 21, 1989, when the call came in over the scanner: a school bus with 81 aboard had crashed near 5 Mile Line and Bryan Road.
Guerrero immediately made his way to the area, but to his dismay, only a Dr Pepper truck could be seen parked along the road. The bus, he would soon find out, had plunged about 40 feet into a water-filled caliche pit, students were trapped inside, and it was quickly sinking.
What transpired next forever changed the lives of countless people, Guerrero included.
Now known as the infamous Alton bus crash, the collision is considered the worst school bus crash in Texas history. It claimed the lives of 21 students and led to widespread changes in school bus safety.
Saturday marked 30 years since the wreck that inspired a corrido, a documentary and a book titled “The Alton Bus Crash.”
Historian and Donna high school history teacher Juan P. Carmona released the book earlier this year, inking the story of grief and greed that captured international attention and fractured the impoverished community of Alton.
“When it came to the rescue, one saw the best in humanity, but when it came to the lawsuits and money, the worst in humanity reared its ugly head,” Carmona wrote.
Virginia Jones, a 13-year-old seventh grader, was sitting toward the back of the bus when she saw her older brother Alex De Leon, then 18, throw a classmate’s shoe across the aisle. As she turned to see what was happening, something in the distance caught her eye.
“And so I look over and I see the truck coming, the Dr Pepper truck, and I told James, ‘James, that truck’s not gonna stop,’” Jones remembers telling her friend and seatmate.
Behind the wheel of that truck was twenty-six-year-old Ruben Perez, who had learned how to drive trucks from his father and had no more than 10 hours of behind-the-wheel training. Perez had already been in a previous collision while working for Valley Coca-Cola Distributors in 1987 and had been demoted from driver to loader. But four months before the Alton bus crash, Perez was allowed to drive again.
Gilberto Peña, the school bus driver, had a relatively safe driving record, with only a speeding ticket and a minor traffic citation for failing to yield, according to Camona’s research. He was already on his second route of the day, having dropped off younger children during his first commute.
Peña was the type of bus driver that knew the kids so well that he had nicknames for them, like “guera” and “flaca,” Jones said. He also knew whenever an extra student boarded his bus and questioned those who got off at bus stops where they didn’t live.
Seconds after Jones saw the shoe fly, the truck rammed the bus.
“What we didn’t expect was for the back of the truck… to come back and hit us in the butt of the bus,” Jones said. “And so it hit us, and that’s when it just gave the bus all the momentum in the world to fly. And that’s exactly what happened. It flew.
“And you just saw the sky, and then you saw the brush, and then you saw the water, and then we were going down. And then once we hit the water, I don’t (remember), I was out.”
Jones could hear someone calling her name. Confused, injured and in shock, it took a while to realize that she wasn’t in fact dead or hearing the voice of God, she said. It was her older brother, Alex, urging her to climb on top of the edge of her seat in order to reach the small window where he would ultimately pull her to safety.
At this point, the bus was on it’s side and the cold and murky water was quickly spilling in. Jones struggled to find her footing on the slippery rubber seat, and then struggled even more to open the small window that had a latch on each side.
“Once I was completely covered in water, it just seemed easy to be able to pull the window down, but the latches were the hard part, you know, trying to do that was hard,” she said. “I got it, but, um, a lot of other people didn’t have that opportunity.”
Those window latches and the lack of available exits would prove fatal to those onboard.
‘HELP’S ON THE WAY’
There are countless rescue stories to be told. Students dying to help siblings and friends, as relatives and neighbors watched helplessly from above; the injured bus driver going in and out of the bus taking children out; a neighbor on a horse pulling students out of the pit; and the countless first responders that worked tirelessly to save those they could and then recovered the dead.
Guerrero, the Alton volunteer firefighter, and an Alton police officer were the first emergency responders to arrive.
“I remember I told the (police officer), ‘Let’s, let’s jump in.’ And the police officer said, ‘I don’t know how to swim.’ And I told him, ‘Well, call, get help from anywhere — Mission, Edinburg, La Joya, Pharr. We need a lot of people out here.’ And what I did, I took a couple of steps back and I ran and jumped into the water as close as I could to the bus,” Guerrero recalled.
“The first thing I saw was the bus driver and a little girl,” he continued. “The bus driver was bleeding on one side of his face, and I told him, ‘Sit, sit here, get a hold of the young little girl. Help’s on the way. I’m a firefighter, let me see what I can do.’”
But Peña could not sit idly by while his precious cargo was still trapped inside, so injured and bloodied, he continued to help.
Perhaps Carmona put it best when he said the bus driver was “running on desperation and adrenaline and a profound sense of duty to the responsibility he had to the children and their parents.”
Those who were helping, frantically searched for a way into the bus.
“I tried to break windows with my fist. The water didn’t let me,” Guerrero said. “And finally I found a window open and I started putting my hands through the inside. I could feel hands in there. (So I) started pulling kids, little girls, little boys, even from their hair, as many as I could.”
Guerrero is credited with taking between 10 to 12 students out of the bus before collapsing on top of it, his body spent.
Both he and the bus driver would eventually end up in the hospital, with doctors pumping black water out of Guerrero’s stomach.
Days later, doctors prescribed everyone involved in the crash and rescue operation a wide range of antibiotics because there was fecal matter in the water.
First responders from near and far would soon converge on the scene along with horrified onlookers, money-hungry attorneys and grief-stricken parents.
Edinburg Fire Chief Shawn Snider was 21 years old and working as a volunteer firefighter in Alamo when the call for help came through. Alamo quickly dispatched a team and a motorized boat to the scene. That boat remains at the fire station today and will soon be donated to the Alamo museum for posterity.
“It was just a horrific scene, none of which any of us have ever been exposed to at that time,” Snider said. “We’re seeing family members there, and the pain and sorrow that they were going through, trying to continue to do our job, but at the same time realizing how horrific this accident was.”
By the time Snider and his team arrived at about 7:45 a.m., many of the students were still either clinging to the edge of the pit or on top of the bus waiting for help.
Jones and her brother were the first to climb on top of the submerged vehicle.
“It seemed like so long before you saw someone else come out. I can’t even describe the amount of time it took. Was it two minutes? Was it 10 minutes? You know, I don’t know,” she said. “Because you don’t, you’re in shock, I guess.”
A numbness spread across her face and hands, but she didn’t know why. It wasn’t until she was hospitalized that she realized both her wrists and her nose were broken.
Still, she climbed up a shaky ladder that the fire department had placed at the edge of the pit and into the safety of an ambulance. Her brother was pulled to safety by Roque, a quick thinking neighbor who threw down a water hose and used a horse to pull students up.
At that point, Jones had no idea some of her busmates were dead. It wasn’t until she saw the evening news that she learned others had died.
“You’re panicking, you’re not even crying because you don’t even know what to think….you’re, you’re looking around in shock,” she said about her time at the scene. “My first instinct isn’t people are going to die. You know, I never in a million years imagined that anyone was gonna die. When I came out of that bus, I thought everybody else was gonna come out of that bus.”
The dead had yet to be buried and already attorneys were fighting for clients. Coca-Cola, after all, was, and continues to be, a billion-dollar company.
What followed the deaths has been described as “one of the biggest personal injury free-for-alls the Valley had ever seen.”
Attorneys fought each other in court for clients and even called each other “crybabies” when complaints began to surface. Even LULAC, one of the oldest Latin American civil rights organizations, saw infighting between the national and local chapters. As a result, the nonprofit was briefly dissolved and restructured financially.
The greed was so great that the American Bar Association sent a “disaster team” to investigate the growing number of allegations as countless stories of attorneys taking advantage of poor families began to circulate.
For Jones’ family, it nearly tore them apart.
Her brother, who was of age in 1989, was convinced by his attorneys, former Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia and Felipe Garcia, to part ways with his family’s lawsuit, and instead file his own, according to Carmona’s book.
The attorneys asked for 40% of De Leon’s settlement, as opposed to the traditional 35%, and in return, they gave the 18-year-old $10,000, set him up in an apartment and gave him a 1981 Toyota Corolla that Felipe Garcia’s brother, a bail bondsman, had acquired from one of his clients.
Ramon Garcia, who was a key player in the civil lawsuits, declined to comment when reached by phone last week.
“People can be just really heartless. And those attorneys, that’s exactly what they were,” Jones said, speaking solely about attorneys who came from out of town to pursue clients. “They were heartless. They didn’t care what they were doing to you. And I’m sure it made a lot of them very rich.”
Coca-Cola ended up paying out more than $150 million in settlements to the families, according to information from previous media reports, and attorneys made an estimated $50 million as a result. The soft drink company awarded families who had lost children $4.5 million per person killed and survivors were awarded between $500,000 and $900,000
The Blue Bird Company, which manufactured the bus, also paid out approximately $23 million in settlements and gave families $950,000 for each child killed, according to the book. Though, it’s important to note that the bus was built to the standards and regulations of the time.
As for the attorneys, the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s office opened 15 cases of barratry, or ambulance chasing, within a year of the incident. A grand jury subsequently indicted three attorneys and one legal assistant, but only the assistant was convicted and sentenced to one year deferred adjudication.
Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra prosecuted the criminal case against Perez, the truck driver who faced 21 counts of involuntary manslaughter, but a jury acquitted him May 6, 1993. By this time, Perez had already spent seven weeks institutionalized in a mental health facility and spent many years after in self-imposed confinement, eating, living and sleeping in his bedroom, Carmona wrote.
A large majority of the families affected that day lived in poverty, but the crash changed that.
Soon Alton residents started buying new cars and large expensive homes.
“It was kind of fun in the beginning because it was like, it was money that you had never had and you never dreamed of it. And all of a sudden you had it,” Jones said. “I had a car when I was 14 years old, you know, I was driving around, had my license.”
Coca-Cola awarded her $750,000, but her mom had unknowingly signed a contract with two different attorneys and they wanted their money.
“And so we go to court and all of a sudden there’s like a lawsuit on top of my settlement. And so he takes his 33% and then (the other attorney) takes his 33% and so we’re left with 33%,” she said. “But, like I told my mom, it’s not money we earned. Who cares?”
In the end, her family walked away with a little over $300,000, and Jones was just happy that she could finally afford K-Swiss tennis and Keds. No longer did she need to color the back of her Payless shoes blue to resemble the name brand, she said.
Her brother, who received advance after advance from his attorneys, walked away with about $267,000, Carmona wrote. By 1997, however, De Leon had spent all of his money.
“Unfortunately, he ended up losing everything, pretty much,” Jones said. “But that’s because there was no education, you know? No one said, ‘Hey Alex, by the way, you need to pay the IRS every year for your income.’”
Those types of situations become a central theme for many of the other families.
“My parents didn’t know how to handle that kind of money either,” Jones said. “It just kind of made people go against each other, too… I already had a hard life at home. It just made it harder.
“It just didn’t make things any easier. It really didn’t.”
If there’s one thing Jones can never forget, it’s the smell.
“It smelled incredibly awful,” she said.
A few weeks after the collision, the principal called her into the office to return some of her belongings that had been found at the crash site. The stench permeated the belongings so she threw away everything, except for some pictures inside a plastic case. They were the only things she couldn’t reproduce, she said.
That same smell catches her off guard every now and then, she said. And when asked what it does to her, she replied, “I’ll be honest with you. I don’t think there goes a day that something doesn’t remind me of that day.”
It’s a memory the survivors are forced to live with.
“Counseling doesn’t take an accident away. Counseling doesn’t bring back my friends,” she said. “I don’t forget standing over there and looking back at the bus and looking at Peña holding on to Joe, you know, with glass all over his face. And you know those memories…they’re there. They’re embedded. They’re there forever.”
And then there’s the survivor’s guilt.
“I’m grateful that I have my life, but at the same time…you feel guilty for having that life,” she said, thinking about her friend Paulina and her sister, who both died in the crash. “I have my boy, you know, he’s 20, and I have a great job… but Polly’s never going to have children. Polly’s never going to have a great job.”
For Guerrero, the fact that he couldn’t save his goddaughter, Anna, haunts him to this day.
“And that’s what I remember — her mother screaming at me cause she was here at the scene — that her daughter was there,” he said, holding back tears. “And I was looking for her, looking for her, and she was one of the last little kids that they got out of the bus.
“I always pass by here and I always remember that. And there’s no way I could go around it cause I live around the corner.”
Guerrero said he couldn’t eat or sleep following the crash.
“(I) lost a lot of weight. I couldn’t sleep. I think I was awake for probably nine days at home…I would try to go to sleep and then I would hear all the kids screaming,” he said. “Anything I would eat, I would vomit.”
Jones is still haunted by water dreams.
“They’re very scary. Sometimes I can’t breathe,” she said. “And I know it’s because of that.”
For a long time, her son couldn’t ride the school bus.
“I always feared that something was going to happen, she said. “I mean, I didn’t want to think about it like that, but that’s how it was, you know… I don’t have any control, so, I don’t want to end up losing my son in an accident like that.
MEMORIALS AND THE PIT
Both Guerrero and Jones disagree with the Josefa Garcia park that was erected just west of the pit.
“People are having fun barbequing, getting drunk where 19 dead bodies were pulled up,” Jones said about the Josefa Garcia park. “I find it extremely inappropriate and I wish I could do something about it, but I know I can’t.
If it’s a memorial park, why isn’t it named after them?”
Both of them would also like to see the pit closed.
“It’s kind of odd that you can go by there today and it’s still open,” Snider, the Edinburg fire chief said.
In its place should be a nicer memorial, they said, similar to what the Mission school district did.
“It’s not about me, it’s about them. It’s about remembering them,” Jones said. “They were my friends. They were who I grew up with, and then one day they’re gone. One day I see Polly’s body, you know, in her little orange striped shirt, and that does not go away.”
And though it’s been 30 years, the memories don’t come easier.
“I consider the anniversary as a season — it’s a season of sadness,” Jones said. “It’s just a depressing time.”