Community members in South Jordan, Utah, remembered 24 victims of a fatal 1938 school bus crash and to witness the unveiling of a monument built in their honor. The wreck between a bus and freight train led to changes in railroad crossing procedures for the entire student transportation industry.
The city, located near Salt Lake City, hosted a ceremony on Dec. 2 at 1 p.m. at the South Jordan Community Center and Heritage Park, and parked a yellow bus beside the monument as a symbolic reminder (pictured above).
Murrell Martin, pupil transportation specialist at the State Office of Education, attended the commemoration ceremony that drew a crowd of roughly 200, including many relatives of the victims who died in the collision.
"Even though this tragedy took place December 1, 1938, it is still considered the worst vehicle collision in the history of Utah," noted Martin. “Out of the devastation to numerous families and the whole community came a strong desire to find ways to make schoolchildren and others safer at rail grade crossings. In the wake of the events of that fateful day, Utah representatives partnered with others across the country in developing increased safety at rail grade crossings."
On Dec. 1, 1938, a school bus was traveling to Jordan High School through a severe snowstorm as a loaded Denver and Rio Grande freight train rolled north toward Salt Lake City, according to the city’s website. When the driver stopped the bus near the railroad crossing at 10200 South and 400 West, he opened the door to peer beyond the thick fog. But he did not see the train with 80-plus cars approaching at more than 50 miles per hour.
At 8:43 a.m., he slowly pulled the bus forward across the tracks. As soon as the train crew spotted the bus, they immediately applied the brakes but it was impossible to avoid a collision. The accident claimed the lives of 23 children and the bus driver, and left the 15 survivors with serious injuries and emotional scars.
The city also posted a poem about angels written by 17-year-old Naomi Lewis the night before she died, along with the following statement: “The devastation felt by all residents of the South Salt Lake Valley is impossible to describe in words alone … The impact and tragic loss left no family untouched. Every South Jordan home had lost a son, daughter, niece, nephew, cousin or friend.”
In the wake of the terrible crash came railroad crossing laws, mechanical crossing arms and national regulations that are still in place today, including the mandatory requirement for bus drivers to not only stop at railroad crossings but also to open their door and the driver-side window to look and listen for oncoming trains.
The South Jordan School District lauded the new monument on its website, which also featured one survivor's written account of the tragedy, and posted pictures of the ceremony on its Facebook page. Displays at the event showed newspaper clippings and photographs of the victims (pictured at left).
“It was a day of great loss, but also a catalyst for change in our nation regarding laws requiring safety arms at railroad crossings. As a community comes together to remember and honor those who died, the city of South Jordan has unveiled a permanent monument in Heritage Park to commemorate the bus crash of 1938 and all the families affected,” stated the district. “We hope this (monument) will give everyone pause to reflect on the past and pray that a tragedy of this magnitude never happens again.”
Yet 57 years later, another horrific train–school bus crash occurred in Chicago at the Fox River Grove railroad crossing, killing seven bus passengers and injuring 24 others as well as the bus driver.
The NTSB investigated the collision and determined the probable cause was that the bus driver had positioned the school bus so that it encroached upon the railroad tracks. The board noted other contributing factors, including the failure of the Illinois Department of Transportation to recognize the short queuing area on northbound Algonquin Road and the insufficient time of the green signal indication for vehicles on this road before the arrival of a train at the crossing.