As Pat MacIntosh travels U.S. 50 east out of Gunnison, climbing the switchbacks to Monarch Pass, the view through the windshield looks different than it did on that September morning nearly a half-century ago. Rain showers test the wipers from a shifting ceiling of gray; back then, sunlight streamed from autumn blue skies.
Just over the crest of the pass, beyond the ski area and the sign warning of a 6% downhill grade, a runaway truck ramp has been carved into the greenery. Off the highway a bit further on, by the tiny hamlet of Garfield, MacIntosh arrives at a pull-out on the right where a small restaurant and gas station once operated. He slips into a rain jacket and walks past the low-slung building now locked and boarded, its pumps long gone.
Then he gets his bearings and pauses, nodding toward the spot where a school bus, carrying him and dozens of his Gunnison High School junior varsity football teammates and coaches to a game in Salida, tumbled to a stop.
A nightmare crashed through that idyllic morning.
“A lot has changed,” says MacIntosh, 65 and weeks from retirement as fleet manager for Gunnison’s public works department. He points toward the forested ravine that drops off from what used to be the restaurant’s parking area. “These trees have grown up so much that you don’t see it the same way.”
In some ways, though, the experience remains vivid. The smell of burning brakes. The grinding noise from frantic but futile efforts to engage the manual transmission. Visions of a harrowing, out-of-control descent that hit 70 mph before a sudden swerve to avoid a downshifted flatbed semi and an approaching car.
The bus rolled two and a half times — ejecting most of its 48 passengers. Its metal sides tore apart as it tumbled and then landed on its roof, which collapsed to the level of the seat backs. Nine people died: eight students and their 28-year-old head coach. More than 20 were injured.
Another thing hasn’t changed in the nearly 50 years since the crash: Rare is the occasion that MacIntosh can pass this way without recalling the loss of his friends and the enduring impact of that day — Sept. 11, 1971 — on the Gunnison community, for whom the simple mention of “9/11” conjured horrific memories decades before a 2001 terrorist attack gave it national significance.
The bus crash made headlines across the country. Even venerable LIFE magazine published a story chronicling the sorrowful aftermath.
And yet, many of those impacted say they rarely confronted or talked about the devastating effects for years, as the community put a brave face on tragedy in an era before trauma counseling became standard procedure. It was 25 years before former GHS players launched a non-profit memorial foundation and the school retired the jerseys, and the coaching jacket, of those who died.
That re-awakening also launched the foundation’s scholarship fund and, more recently, plans to honor the lost Cowboys on the 50th anniversary of the crash at the school’s homecoming game next month. One crash survivor, an avid cyclist, will pedal the 65-mile route from Salida to Gunnison to deliver the game ball as a fundraiser for the scholarships.
MacIntosh, who was thrown from the vehicle and suffered a broken hip, has joined some of his teammates in speaking out about the incident, recounting the day for students, reporters, anyone who wants to listen. He allows that some locals scratch their heads and wonder why. Partly, the purpose has been to advance the cause of the foundation and school bus safety, which took some significant steps forward in the wake of the incident.
But also he wants to honor the wish of a father of one of his lost teammates who simply didn’t want his son to be forgotten. And like other survivors and teammates of those lost, he finds the 50th anniversary an opportunity to remember — and continue a long-dormant conversation.
“I guess I’ve wanted to be positive and put it out there and not be afraid to talk about it,” says MacIntosh, who was a 15-year-old lineman at the time of the accident. “What else can I do but talk to people?”
“Beyond exciting to terrifying”
Bill Noxon was a 16-year-old newcomer to Gunnison High School, a promising defensive tackle who had played with the Cowboys varsity in their first game of the season the night before. Coaches were eager to see how he’d do as an offensive lineman, so it was decided that Noxon, the son of the new football coach at the town’s Western State College, would suit up for the JV game on Saturday.
He took a seat with the coaches near the front of the bus. That morning as they reached the top of Monarch Pass, one of the coaches recalled the story of how, in 1950, the Western State football team had been traveling over the pass when their bus lost its brakes, and how everyone on the bus had shifted their positions, side to side, to keep the bus from tipping as it navigated the curves at more than 100 mph on its way down. Miraculously, no one was hurt.
Around the Monarch ski area, Noxon recalls, he caught the scent of burning rubber from the brakes on the Gunnison team bus. The vehicle operated with a two-speed rear axle, and the bus driver appeared to have been unable to shift properly, leaving the bus essentially stuck in neutral. He seemed to slow the bus to a near-stop and once again engage the gears, and Noxon relaxed.
But then the gears disengaged again, and the bus gathered speed.
In a seat further back in the bus, MacIntosh argued with another player about whether the burning smell came from the brakes or the clutch. He knew it was the brakes. His father had served as a mechanic in World War II and passed along a broad knowledge of how vehicles worked. So MacIntosh knew how two-speed axles functioned, and that basically the manual transmission was caught between its high and low range. Out of gear, barreling downhill, the emergency brake would do nothing but kill the engine.
“I just lived and breathed that kind of thing,” MacIntosh says of his interest in mechanics that would eventually define his career. “So I had a good idea that things weren’t going well.”
Fifteen-year-old Bill Marshall, also sitting near the back of the bus, initially didn’t feel too concerned that the bus was gathering speed.
“We just thought we had a fun bus driver,” he says. Then he noticed the commotion in the front of the bus and realized the acceleration and burning smell meant that the brakes were shot. “So it’s gone beyond exciting to terrifying pretty quickly.”
When the bus rumbled over a set of railroad tracks, the impact momentarily bounced everyone out of their seats — what Marshall now recalls as his personal “holy shit moment.” To that point, there had been little traffic to navigate. But as the bus approached Garfield, the slow-moving semi, trailed by an automobile, came into view and the bus moved to pass, just as a car approached from the opposite direction.
The sight reminded Marshall of family drive trips when he and his three brothers would be goofing around in the back seat of their station wagon — no seat belts in those days. He remembered how his father would put the boys through a safety drill in case he ever pulled out to pass on a two-lane highway and saw a car headed toward them. “Get down!” he’d holler and the boys would drop to the floor and hold on.
Marshall flashed back.
“When I saw (the bus driver) had pulled out to pass the semi and there was a car coming, I heard my father’s voice say to get down on the floor,” he says. “So I dove down to the floor, grabbed the seat posts with my hands and braced with my feet against the side of the bus.”
The bus pulled back and swerved through the filling station parking lot in an attempt to pass the slow-moving semi on the right. MacIntosh remembers smashing through a large wooden sign painted in bright colors. The splintering, colored plywood exploding through the windshield conjured a bizarre connection: It reminded him of the psychedelic imagery he’d seen in anti-drug presentations to depict a bad LSD trip.
Then the bus tipped over and started rolling, its metal shell ripping apart, ejecting 45 of the 48 occupants and scattering equipment bags everywhere. Marshall, clinging to seat posts on the floor as his father had instructed, somehow remained inside the vehicle.
“The construction of the bus was so weak that it didn’t take much of an impact to blow the roof off,” he says. “And I woke up and there was a guy on top of me, who I assumed was dead, though I believe he did survive. But he was certainly not moving. The air was just choked with dirt. And I could smell gas. And my only thought was that I don’t want to burn to death.”
Noxon, in the front of the bus, recalls being thrown to the floor by the impact and also somehow remained inside. He saw a hole in the frayed metal and crawled out.
“I was in shock. I’ve never experienced watching people die, never experienced so much trauma in my life,” he says. “It left some emotional scars. And I had real fears about riding in buses after that. Still do.”
In the haze of the moment and unaware of his own broken hip, MacIntosh also felt stunned by the scene around him.
“It looked like maybe something that you would compare to a Vietnam war scene,” he says. “I mean it was just bleeding bodies and bags and stuff everywhere. It was just chaos.”
“She’s exactly who we need”
JoAnn Stone, whose 15-year-old son Steve played for the Cowboys JV that fall, drove to the game along that same route, not far behind the team bus.
But nothing could have prepared her for what she saw as she rounded the curve into Garfield.
“I looked across the highway and saw my son and a buddy standing there,” says Stone, now 85. “You’re thinking, why are they there? Then I look behind them and the bus was on its top. The wheels were still turning, dust was still coming up in the air.”
Stone pulled off the road and hurried across the highway, where she was met by a state trooper who’d been moments away from the crash and responded immediately. He grabbed her arm and told her, “Lady, this is no place for you.”
But a man who knew Stone happened to be getting gas at the filling station when the bus rolled. “She’s exactly who we need,” he told the trooper.
Stone was trained as an EMT. She was also a pilot and member of the Civil Air Patrol, and was in radio contact with her husband back in Gunnison. She helped doctors call in a MASH unit from Fort Carson, whose medical transport helicopters would airlift the most seriously injured to Denver hospitals. As the injured were loaded onto the choppers, she made note of them and advised her husband to activate private pilots who could fly those players’ parents from Gunnison to Denver to be with their boys.
So frantic were all the efforts to help that it wasn’t until three days later that the enormity of what happened finally caught up to her. Her son was OK, but the visions of the dead and injured broke her down.
“I was putting clothes in the washing machine and it came to me that these are our kids,” Stone recalls. “And I started crying and couldn’t stop. We went to every game these kids played, we knew them all. They were our kids. All of them.”
Kent Cooper, Tim Dutton, Billy Miles — all 14 years old. Brad Hall and Mike Pasqua, both 15; Mark Broadwater and Pat Graham, both 16. Ted Maw was the oldest player at 17. The head coach, L.D. Floyd, was just 28.
A funeral service for eight packed the gym at Western State College (since renamed Western Colorado University). The family of one player held rites at a local church. All nine were buried, side by side, in Gunnison Cemetery. Headstones flush to the grass pay each tribute, and eventually a memorial marker and two concrete benches went up at the gravesite.
Then the town of Gunnison tried to move on, reflecting a prevailing attitude of the times that to dwell on the unpleasant would only magnify the shared grief. At a team meeting just two days after the crash, players voted — nearly unanimously, survivors say — to continue on with the football season and dedicate it to the teammates they lost.
Matt Robbins remembers a fall snowstorm dumping about 5 wet inches before the next weekend’s game at Leadville. Gunnison prevailed, 18-0.
“I just remember after that game feeling an unbelievable amount of relief that we won one for the guys,” says Robbins, who eventually drove the effort to create the nonprofit that keeps his teammates’ memory alive.
In some ways, the shared trauma had a galvanizing effect on the community as people rallied to support each other. But there was also a pervasive reluctance to address its lingering effects for fear of being “negative.” That didn’t mean there wasn’t a mountain of pent-up grief, sorrow and survivor’s guilt.
“While it was a thing that was on everybody’s mind, there were a lot of things that went unsaid,” Stone recalls. “People I don’t think had the strength to say things because they were afraid to fall apart.”
Multiple factors behind crash
The subsequent crash investigation revealed significant design flaws in the school bus construction that compromised safety. A more rigid superstructure, a report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found seven months later, likely would have kept the roof from collapsing.
Paul Medina, the Gunnison district’s transportation manager at the time, served after the crash on a statewide committee that created minimum standards for bus safety.
The bus manufacturer began installing what it called the “Gunnison Package,” improvements like adding and strengthening side posts that had failed, constructing roof panels that ran lengthwise instead of side to side to eliminate some of the danger from crumpled metal in a crash. Many more rivets, much closer together, further secured the structure.
Buses were equipped with “driveline retarders” that could slow the vehicle’s speed electronically instead of relying solely on gear shifting and conventional brakes.
Some of those changes have been improved further with advancing technology well beyond the equipment on the Gunnison bus in 1971. Driver training also has improved. The NHTSA report noted that the driver’s unfamiliarity with the vehicle and lack of proper emergency training played a major role in the crash.
“There is little doubt that the inexperienced driver exceeded the vehicle design limitations,” the report concluded. “This does not exempt the manufacturer and those responsible for purchasing the vehicle from providing an equipment system with an adequate margin of safety, given their knowledge of the wide range of experience of bus drivers, the type of terrain and the range of operation conditions imposed.”
Medina, now retired but still active in a mandatory bus safety week for Gunnison middle-schoolers, notes that three factors — driver training, vehicle inspections and improved design of buses available today — contribute to safer student transportation across Colorado.
“Here,” he says of the Gunnison district, “I think one of the factors is that people still remember. So that drives a lot of things.”
“We just couldn’t talk about it”
The outsized effect of losing nine people in a single crash weighed heavily on a town whose population at the time hovered around only 4,600. But the emphasis on counseling and mental health that now accompanies mass tragedies wasn’t available in 1971, and once the victims of the crash had been memorialized and buried, many saw in their community a stoic determination to soldier on. It seemed the best way forward.
Individuals dealt with the emotional fallout in a variety of ways. They sought the comfort of work or friends. They looked for faith-based relief. They made career choices that reflected a desire to help others. But in large part, the town stayed silent about its unfathomable loss.
Zeta Graham lost her son Pat, who only recently had turned 16. He worked multiple jobs hoping to save money to buy his first car — he had his eye on a Volkswagen Beetle — and long-range aspirations to become a commercial pilot. Dealing with his death was difficult all on its own (she has since outlived all but one of her four sons) but the silence made it worse.
“You know, we just couldn’t talk about it,” she says. “And that was a biggie.”
Graham, 95, taught middle school at the time and remembers the first year after the crash as “a blur.” She felt herself becoming more and more depressed. There were some family and close friends she could talk to, but mostly she leaned on staying busy — with teaching, coaching, sewing, researching family genealogy.
“I think doing all those things probably kept my sanity, because I could feel myself really going downhill,” she says. “But I thought, ‘You can’t do that. Pat wouldn’t have wanted it.’ So I just got up and tried to work harder to help others and do the best I could.”
As it turned out, some of the best listeners were her seventh- and eighth-grade students. Interacting with them helped her realize that many of the kids in town were hurting as well.
“One of Pat’s very best friends, they were going to meet when he got back from Salida to do some things,” she recalls. “And of course Pat didn’t make it. So he said later that he would deliberately run stop signs, deliberately try to hurt himself, because he was so guilty because Pat was gone, and he wasn’t. And he wasn’t even a football player. So those kids suffered, but they were told not to talk about it.”
A psychology professor at Western State wrote her a letter — he may have sent it to all the parents who lost boys in the crash, she’s not sure — that laid out the range of feelings she could expect to confront in the months ahead. Graham read it as a sort of emotional road map to the future.
“And so I followed that,” she says. “And sure enough, all these things that he predicted actually came true. So, probably this was the best counseling I got.”
Others have found solace in simple remembrance. JoAnn Stone, whose son Steve survived the crash and died six years ago from ALS, continues to visit the burial site to reflect.
“I know it’s been 50 years,” Stone says. “But when I get really down, I still go out and park at the cemetery in front of the graves, and it brings me peace. And I never go out there that I don’t see somebody else that has gone out there just for the same reason, or to decorate a grave or to just remember their son or their friends.”
Coping with the crash also meant facing down fear. Several weeks afterward, Pat MacIntosh’s dad suggested a tough-love plan to help his son confront the terrifying memory of the crash.
“We’ve got to go over Monarch one of these days,” he told his son, and Pat didn’t hesitate.
“Then let’s go do it.”
They piled into the family’s ’64 Pontiac Bonneville station wagon, Pat in the front passenger seat while his dad drove, and began the long climb east toward the pass and the accident site. He recalls that even the steady uphill progress seemed way too fast as they leaned into the switchbacks. He repeatedly urged his father to slow down.
“When we found a wide spot I might’ve made him stop for a little bit,” MacIntosh recalls, scanning his memory for details. “And then I’m sure he told me, ‘We’ve got to go. You need to go to the top.’ And we went over the top and went to the gas station, through the parking lot, just to see what I remembered.”
On the ground, he spotted fragments of that wooden sign, the one with the almost psychedelic colors that came crashing through the windshield. He picked up some shards of painted plywood and tucked them into a plastic sandwich bag. They became artifacts in the scrapbook his mother pieced together, tucked among pages of newspaper clippings about the crash from as far away as Oregon.
It was a quiet ride home.
“I was tired, I was strung out,” MacIntosh says. “But it was definitely good for me.”
Volunteer assistant coach Stu Kaplan, just 24 and coaching the freshmen while he took classes at Western State College, felt luckier than most. He remembers sitting in the seat right behind the driver, feeling the bus gain speed and gradually lose control after cresting the pass, hollering for the players to “Get down!”
His next memory is regaining consciousness three days later in a Salida hospital. One of the survivors told him he’d been catapulted from the bus into a stand of trees, but he has no recollection. He woke up sore and immobilized, with stitched-up gashes on his right biceps.
But he feels grateful that he was spared the aftermath of the crash, and that both he and his parents, who flew in from their Chicago home, were treated with incredible kindness and generosity first by residents of Salida, where he was treated initially, and then by those in Gunnison throughout his recovery. Kaplan lived alone. So once he was transported to Gunnison, the Stone family set up a bed in their living room and, with his mom, helped nurse him back to health.
After his recovery — to this day he’s not clear on the precise extent of his injuries — he did his student teaching at Gunnison High School in the spring of 1972, then left for a teaching job in Tucson. Today he lives in Indianapolis, where he’s president of a company that manufactures medical devices.
The tragedy left a hole in his life, but he never sought counseling, even after trauma treatment had become common. Talking about the crash over the phone 50 years on, he feels memories and emotions flooding back in an unexpected way.
“I’m sitting in an air-conditioned room right now,” Kaplan says, “and I feel like I’m sweating.”
Healing emotional scars
Noxon, now 66 and a retired educator living in Colorado Springs, looked in several directions for help dealing with his trauma.
Early on, as he “grasped for whatever I could to help me get through,” he fell in with a religious group for a while. He joined the Army to be a medic and eventually worked in emergency rooms. Once he gravitated to education in the 1980s — he taught middle school and eventually moved to administration — he finally sought professional counseling.
Part of the reason was the sleepless nights and emotional numbness, and part was that health insurance through his job covered the sessions. He felt he made real progress, but adds that the crash remains with him.
“I’ve got the emotional scars,” Noxon says. “That’s never gonna go away. But what I do have is really close friends. That was a piece. I’ve been able to make some really close friends and stay close. Matt’s been one of them.”
Robbins, the player who decided to skip the JV game in Salida because he’d played so much the night before, realized around the time of his 20th high school class reunion in 1993 that something more needed to be done. At the end of the reunion, after a night of cocktails, people’s guards came down, the subject of the crash came up, and their inner struggles rose to the surface.
Those difficult, but cathartic, conversations planted the seed of an idea to start a nonprofit foundation. Robbins reached out to some of the crash survivors for their input and slowly, the concept came together.
The planning and legal work took some time, but the 1971 GHS Football Memorial Foundation was launched in time for the players’ jersey retirement in 1996, on the 25th anniversary of the crash. That kicked off the foundation’s fundraising for scholarships presented each year to two GHS students. The foundation also awards the “Paul Medina Safe Bus Driver of the Year” each fall.
Marshall, whose survival might have hinged on remembering the admonition of his father, figures that while the survivors internalized the trauma and moved ahead the best they could, the 25th anniversary offered a release.
“I’ve shed plenty of tears, but I had never done it in front of or with other survivors — until the anniversary when a lot of us got together for the first time since high school,” Marshall says. “You know, we went up to the scene at Garfield, and we just started talking. It was a very healthy thing to do. We just had never talked about the memories that we had.”
Today he’s a hotel manager in Vail with a keen interest in cycling. He resolved to pedal the 65 miles from the Salida hospital to Gunnison for the foundation fundraiser. He thinks of it as “the ride home” that eight players and a coach never got to make.
He’ll deliver the game ball to the homecoming football game on Sept. 11. A halftime ceremony also will honor those who died, with the overarching goal that their memories will endure.
Zeta Graham has watched the foundation coalesce with pride and appreciation. She feels that those who have come together to make this happen did so with a sense of determination to live positive lives after fate spared them.
“The ones that started this foundation are all Pat’s age,” she says. “So I’ve watched them grow up and their kids grow up and their grandkids. And I think they’ve all worked harder to show that that group of boys meant something special.”