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The Pleasant Hill School Bus Tragedy – Podcast #61

Now the story that I am about to tell you is a sad one that involves the death of school children.  

It is very different from the deadly Bath, Michigan school bombing of 1927, which I wrote about in Lindbergh’s Artificial Heart and repeated in podcast #3.   To refresh your memory, in that incident, upset taxpayer Andrew Kehoe took the lives of 45 people, including 38 young children, their teachers, and others, including himself.  

It is also unlike the recent shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut that ended the lives of 28 people, including 20 elementary students.  

In both those incidents, one person violently took the lives of the others.  Today’s story deals with a freak storm, some bad decision-making by a number of individuals, and just plain really bad luck.  No guns, explosives, deranged individuals, or violence were involved at all.

So, let’s start with a few basic details.  Location:  14 miles south of Towner, Colorado.  Just west of the Colorado, Kansas border.  Date:  March 26, 1931.  Population in 1931: 3,786 for the entire county.  Basically, no one lived here.  Nearly half that population lives there today, so this is not the type of place one would expect a story that captured national attention to occur.

But it did.

That March 26th started out as the perfect day.  The sun was shining and the morning was exceptionally warm.  Parents woke their children up early and got them ready for school.  Their bus driver, a local farmer named Carl Miller, joyfully picked up each student on his nearly one-hour bus run.

Now, if you are thinking of one of those big yellow behemoths with the flashing red lights pulling up to each house to pick these kids up, you would be way off.  This was a 1929 Chevrolet farm truck that had been fitted with a removable wooden bus body.   Blue in color, the bus had five windows along each side.  The glass was missing from the bus’s two rear windows and retrofitted with pieces of cardboard.  

There were none of those foam-padded, green vinyl-covered bus seats, either.  Just two wooden benches that ran parallel to each other along the bus’s walls.  Lacking a heater, the only way for the kids to stay warm during those treacherous winter months was to bundle up before ever boarding the bus.  But none of that was needed today – it was a spectacular day.  Gloves, hats, and heavy coats were left at home en masse.

The students attended one of two schools in the Pleasant Hill School District. Just like calling their jalopy of transportation, a school bus seems incredibly generous, calling their places of education a school is also a bit misleading.  These were two one-room schoolhouses that sat near each other in the middle of a barren field – one for grades one to 6, and the other for 7th and 8th grades.

The buildings were in very bad shape. There was no running water – Carl Miller carried water in every morning on the sideboard of his bus.  And you know what that means – there was no bathroom either.  Just two old-fashioned outhouses behind the elementary school.  Centralized heat?  Definitely not.  One coal stove in the corner of each building.

By the time Carl Miller dropped the kids off at school, the sky had turned a dooming dark gray color and the temperature took a precipitous drop.  Suddenly snow started falling from the sky at an incredible rate.

The schools’ teachers, Maude Moser and Franz Freiday immediately consulted with Carl Miller as to what to do next. They felt that if the storm was intense and of long duration, the students would be trapped in the school buildings. Without food, water, beds, or blankets, this was not a good position for the students to be in.  Carl Miller totally disagreed, arguing that the school had the most important thing needed to ride the storm out – heat.

Ultimately, they came up with what seemed like the best solution at the time.  Carl Miller would take the students to the nearest farmhouse and wait out the storm.  This was much better than staying in the poorly equipped school buildings.  While I doubt that any parent would want twenty students and their bus driver suddenly crashing their house, it was agreed that this would be the best place to ride out the storm.  So, at 9 AM, the students were loaded back on the bus, and off they went to the nearest farm – that of Bud & Hazel Untiedt (Un-teed) and their five kids.

This should have been a simple enough drive since a dirt road connected the school buildings directly to the Untiedt place.  But Carl Miller was blinded by the intense snow and accidentally drove along the wrong road.  He was immediately lost in the whiteout.  

He stuck his head out the window to see if he could get his bearings, but could not.  Clearly confused, Miller inadvertently drove the bus farther and farther from the road.

And then…  Whoomp…  The bus dipped and then quickly rose back up.  It had driven into a deep ditch.  Unable to gain traction, the bus’s wheels spun and spun until the engine conked out.  

Twenty young children ages 7 to 14 and their bus driver were now stuck without any heat, wearing clothing that was totally inappropriate for the awful weather that had engulfed the bus.  

Towner School Bus Where 5 Children Perished Mar. 28-1931.
“Towner School Bus Where 5 Children Perished Mar. 28-1931.”

Carl Miller immediately swooped into action.  First, he asked the oldest boy on the bus, Bryan Untiedt, to help him drain the radiator so that it wouldn’t freeze.  Then, he attempted to start a small fire in the bus using paper torn from the students’ notebooks.  Sadly, the paper was damp, wouldn’t ignite easily, and once it did, filled the cabin of the bus with thick smoke.

Carl knew that he had to keep the children active in an effort to avoid frostbite.  He figured that the storm would let up soon and everyone would be fine.  But it didn’t.

A few hours after this whole ordeal started, the cardboard in one of the rear windows finally gave way and snow started to blow into the bus.  It was now 3:00 in the afternoon.  Desperation was starting to set in.  Carl now sent the oldest girl, Clara Smith, along with Bryan Untiedt out to see if they could follow the fence line to a house.  They were unsuccessful and returned to the bus.

By 6 PM, the dark, moonless night was quickly approaching.  The temperature dropped to well below zero and the wind chill made it feel much, much worse.  Everyone was exhausted and they had no choice but to huddle close and wait for morning.  The sun rose, but there was still no rescue.  Carl Miller knew exactly what he had to do – he had to leave the bus and go get help immediately.  He instructed the children to keep moving, to keep exercising.  Bryan Untiedt took charge and did his best, but the children were quickly losing strength.

Not long after he left, the storm took its first victim.  13-year-old  Louise Stonebraker had frozen to death.  Not long after that, 11-year-old Robert “Bobbie” Brown passed away.  This was followed by the youngest victim, 7-year-old Kenneth Johnson.  

As you can imagine, the parents were equally in a panic.  They assumed that their children were safe at the school, but knew that they would be lacking food, water, and blankets.  Around noon, Bud Untiedt was the first parent to set out for the school.  With the wind blowing the snow in every which direction, he could hardly see where he was steering his horses.  When he arrived at the school, he was shocked to find that no one was there.  Soon, additional fathers arrived at the school.  The parents were now frantic and an all-out search had begun.

Back on the bus, late afternoon had set in and it was going to be dark again very soon.  The older children decided to lay down upon the younger children in an effort to keep them warm.

Suddenly, at 5 PM on Friday, March 27th, that’s 33 hours after this whole ordeal started, the door to the bus was ripped open and the wind blew violently in.  That is when the Untiedt dad Bud entered the bus.  There was no way that he could have been prepared for the horror that now lay in front of him.  Dave Stonebraker followed him onto the bus only to find the body of his lifeless daughter Louise nearly covered in snow.  

The two men quickly loaded all seventeen of the remaining children onto their wagons and headed to the nearest farm – that of Andy and Fern Reinert.  The three children that had succumbed to the frigid air were temporarily left behind inside the bus.

The children were now in a warm home, but some were in much worse shape than others.  Sadly, two more children, Bud’s 8-year-old son Arlo and missing bus driver Carl Miller’s 8-year-old daughter Mary Louise would not survive the night.  That brought the total number of deaths to five children.

As the storm started to die down, a couple of doctors were finally able to reach the farmhouse.  But some of the children needed care that only a hospital could provide.  And the nearest hospital was nearly 50-miles-away in Lamar.  There was no possible way that anyone could drive that distance on such treacherous roads.  

By 10 AM the next morning, the sun was shining.  Pilot Jack Hart was able to find a wind-swept area to land his airplane and flew two of the most seriously ill children to the hospital in Lamar.  About two hours later, a larger plane called The Fawn arrived to airlift the remainder of the afflicted children.   While this rescue was certainly needed and appreciated, I should point out that it was paid for by the Denver Post.  They sent along both a reporter and a photographer to get a front-page story.

Now keep in mind that one person was still missing – the bus driver Carl Miller.  Sadly, his frozen body was found the next day about three miles south of the bus.  He had apparently followed the fence line until he could not follow it anymore.

Amazingly, none of the children lost a single toe or finger to frostbite.  All six of the victims were buried with matching tombstones in a cemetery in Holly, Colorado.  

The press milked the story for everything that they could.  They needed a hero and Bryan Untiedt fit the bill very well – he was outgoing and well-spoken.  There was a petition started to recognize the oldest girl on the bus – Clara Smith – as a hero, but that never materialized.

All of the survivors were given a week-long, all-expenses paid trip to Denver, but again it was all a publicity stunt sponsored by the Denver Post.  Cameras and reporters followed the children everywhere and recorded their every move.  

Eleven days after the Denver trip, Bryan Untiedt was whisked off to Washington, DC to meet with President Herbert Hoover.   With the country deep in the Depression, Hoover’s staff arranged the meeting in an effort to humanize Hoover and make him seem more compassionate.  

Naturally, the teachers were blamed by many for this disaster.  Both finished out the school year, never to return to the Pleasant Hill schools again.  Maude Moser worked the rest of her career teaching in the Vineland School District in Pueblo, Colorado.  She passed away in 1980.

The other teacher, Franz Freiday, was just 27-years-old when he died from a lung ailment in 1934.  

Bryan Untiedt passed away in December of 1977.  Clara Smith died in 1997 on her wedding anniversary.   As for the other thirteen children that survived, a number of them are still alive today.  There is an excellent summary of what happened to each one of them in the book “Children of the Storm” by Ariana Harner and Clark Secrest.  I figured mentioning all of those names in the story would make it hard to follow, but they are all heroes in my book. 

Useless?  Useful?  I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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