While the world is remembering 9/11/01 and the fall of the Towers and the thousands of lives lost, my thoughts also turn to another 9/11 thirty years earlier which had an even greater impact on my life.
September 11, 1971 was a day that changed not only my life, but the lives of every person in my hometown of Gunnison, Colorado. To this day, if you mention “The Bus Wreck” to anyone in Gunnison or anyone who graduated in what has become known as “The Bus Wreck Years” (1972-1975), it brings memories of heartbreak and tragedy.
September 11, 1971 was the day a bus carrying the Gunnison High School Junior Varsity Football Team to a game, went off Monarch Pass, taking the lives of eight players and a coach, and injuring many more. The town and, in fact, the entire country went into mourning for such a loss.
Gunnison is a small town – we all knew every one of these kids and the coach. The coach was my shop teacher in Junior High and I had known all of the boys since kindergarten. One of best friends, Billy Miles was killed in the accident, as were others in my class. The boys who were injured were all integral parts of our lives – and the other coach taught my history class in high school. These were not strangers – these were my friends and my teachers – people I saw on a daily basis.
Everyone in Gunnison can tell you where they were on that fateful day, when the news first starting pouring in about the accident – much like the Kennedy Assassination or 9/11/01. I was babysitting at a neighbor’s and couldn’t pull myself away from the television. There were pictures of my friends, pictures of what was left of the bus, pictures of parents crying – and I was crying right along with them.
Theirs was the first funeral I ever attended. It was held in the gym at Western State College because it was the only place large enough to hold the townspeople. Our hearts were broken and our souls were bruised. We had lost so much.
The boys and their coach are all buried next to each other – because they were a team. Whenever I go home and visit my mother’s grave, I always stop by their grave and remember their smiles, their jokes and how much they are still missed.
It is haunting to know that what was said about this tragedy on September 11, 1971 would be repeated in reference to the tragedy on September 11, 2001 – “THE ENTIRE NATION WAS SHOCKED AND SADDENED …”
The town of Gunnison is still healing – 40 years later. Last week the first football game was played in the new Cowboy Memorial Stadium which was dedicated to those who died in the wreck. A foundation was established which gives out scholarships to students in memory of those involved in the wreck. And most importantly, the buses in which all children ride to school were re-designed to require roll bars, so this tragedy would not be repeated.
This Sunday, I will be flying my flag to honor those who died or were injured on 9/11/2001 and my friends who died on 9/11/1971.
In memory of those who died on 9/11/1971 –
- Kent Cooper (age 14)
- Tim Dutton (age 14)
- Billy Miles (age 14)
- Brad Hall (age 15)
- Mike Pasqua (age 15)
- Mark Broadwater (age 16)
- Pat Graham (age 16)
- Ted Maw (age 17)
- Coach Leon D. Floyd (age 28)
Important link: 1971 GHS Football Memorial Foundation, Inc.