Impact of deadly accident 40 years ago still lingers

Gary Collins, 17, carried the lifeless body of his 14-year-old sister off the bus and placed her on the side of the road.

"I'm so sorry I can't help you," he was heard whispering. "But there are others who need help now." He turned towards the bus once again to see how he could help.

Collins is one of 15 survivors from a tragic crash Dec. 26, 1972, near Fort Sumner that took the lives of 19 people — most high school student. Today marks 40 years since the tragedy that touched and forever changed lives from Clovis to Austin, Texas.

Courtesy photo: Guy Taylor

This memorial stone sits in front of David Crockett High School in Austin, Texas, as a tribute to the 13 Crockett High students who died in a bus accident in December 1972.

Melanie (Carpenter) McNabb of College Station, Texas, was one of 13 students riding in the David Crokett High School bus that smashed into a semi-truck on the narrow bridge outside Fort Sumner.

"I don't remember the impact but I did wake up on the bus with a pile of rubble on top of me," said MacNabb, now 55, who was 15 years old at the time of the accident. "When I woke up, my head was turned and Paul Coke's face (an 18-year-old victim) was right next to mine. I remember somebody saying, 'Melanie, be still. I'm going to get you out,' then I passed out again."

MacNabb said she woke again a short while later lying in a puddle of diesel fuel and feeling the cold air.

She was one of several injured individuals to be transported to the hospital in a farmer's camper. The identity of the farmer is still unknown to this day.

MacNabb said she had cracked and broken ribs, small bones shattered in her neck and foot and scrapes and bruises on her face following the accident. Glass lenses shattered in her eyes. Her injuries were some of the most minor. A neck injury from the crash required surgery six years ago.

"One of the hardest parts about it for me was that, back then, there was not counseling," MacNabb said. "I just remember not knowing how to process it and there being no suggestions and no help of how to deal with that. I don't remember much about the next couple of years. I just remember that I kind off went off the deep end."

MacNabb said she turned from God and turned to heavy drinking for a short while before re-establishing her faith and becoming a church secretary for most of her lifetime. She has now returned to school to study for the medical field.

Two other lives impacted are those of Clovis brothers Harvey and Ronny Stidham, who were Clovis emergency medical technicians at the time of the accident.

"When we first got on scene, we didn't even know where to start. There were so many people laying in every position you could think of. We had to just dive in and start taking care of it," said Ronny Stidham, adding that he and his brother were part of the first EMT training class ever given in Curry County.

Stidham said he, his brother and fellow EMT Steve Henson had just gone through an on-scene accident training with a simulated car accident three months prior to event.

"I was 16 and Steve was 15, so we were the same age as most of the people on that bus. We were young and we grew up that night," Stidham said. "I went from being a teenager to being an adult that night. From the hospital service, I went into the funeral service. It affected me to the point that I wanted to help those grieving and hurt."

Guy Taylor, 57, of Austin, a former Crockett student who was 17 years old at the time of the accident, organized a 40th anniversary memorial ceremony at the high school in Austin on Dec. 14. More than 1,000 high school students, faculty and others gathered to remember victims of that day four decades past.

"To go to school and look at a dead man's chair is overwhelming," Taylor said. "I had grown up with some of these kids and now they were gone. It affected all of us and all we had was each other and our God."

Taylor struggled with guilty feelings. He was supposed to go on the 1972 bus trip to Vadito, a New Mexico ski retreat 42 miles east of Espanola with his church, Woodlawn Baptist Church.

He backed out one week prior to the trip.

"You're sitting there thinking 'Oh my God, I almost went. That could have been me lying there,'" Taylor said, remembering gathering at his church with the rest of the victim's loved ones. "You feel guilty because you could have been there to help. I've had that guilt my whole life. I should have been there. But it's moments like that…that mold us and shape us into who we will become. I became a police officer."

Taylor said all of south Austin was impacted by the accident with many having lost close friends, daughters, sons and loved ones..

He said eight survivors attended the memorial event at the high school, which has a stone in front commemorating those who died that cold December bight near Fort Sumner. The church also has a memorial stone.

The Stidham brothers have visited the accident site every year in December since 1972 for a few minutes of silent reflection.

"People think we're weird but it's something that just impacted our lives greatly," Stidham said. "We just feel the need to recognize what happened there. We take a moment of silence and just reflect.

"People think we're nuts for keeping the memory alive all these years, but they weren't there. They didn't see what we saw. If you weren't there then you don't understand."

Taylor is now compiling past stories on the accident, along with the few surviving photos from the trip. He recently created a Facebook page devoted to memorializing the incident.

"I'm putting all of that together so Crockett will have all this information about what happened and these students won't just be names on a rock anymore," Taylor said. "In your life, you will witness tragedy and trauma and you'll remember your entire life where you were at that moment and those incidents are going to help develop your personality and who you are. This bus accident was one of those for me."

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