My turn: Accident left 19 dead 39 years ago

One of the worst vehicle accidents in New Mexico history happened 39 years ago this week on a narrow bridge, 10 miles east of Fort Sumner, on U.S. 60-84.

Nineteen people, most of them teenagers on a holiday ski vacation from Woodlawn Baptist Church in Austin, Texas, died Dec. 26, 1972. Their bus crashed into a cattle truck, which jackknifed on the bridge.

John Roberts of Austin was driving a companion bus and saw it all through his rear-view mirror:

“Everything was normal. Then the lights went out,” he told a reporter that night.

State Police Capt. A.C. Jones, a 15-year veteran of traffic investigations: “This is definitely the worst wreck I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen two vehicles weld together like this.”

Rev. James Abington of Woodlawn Baptist, after reading the names of the dead to his congregation: “Lord, what can I say? What can I say?”

Officials at the scene said the bridge was 20 feet wide. The vehicles took up about 17 feet between them.

Ronny Stidham, who drove an ambulance to the scene from Clovis, has made multiple trips to the crash site in memory of the victims. He believes the cattle truck driver did everything he could to avoid the tragedy, sensing the danger moments earlier.

“He knew that bridge was not wide enough,” Stidham said in a 1999 interview. “What most people don’t realize is he was hitting the guard rail, trying to take that truck into the ravine.”