- Historic Sites
An astonishing saga of endurance and high courage told by a man who lived through it
February 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 1
Later we found out everything that had gone on in the bus. Many kids came to their schools on horseback or in buggies, but this particular school had a 1929 Chevrolet six-cylinder bus. When the storm began, the teacher and the bus driver decided home was the best place for the children, but the driver didn’t much want to start, thinking maybe it might get worse before he could make his rounds. But against his better judgment they loaded the kids, twenty in all, and started to take them home. The kids rejoiced, thinking, No school, we are going to have a vacation for a few days! and all climbed in the bus, singing and happy as larks. Some started to eat their lunches, for they had a long ride home.
It then was about nine o’clock the first day. As he left the school, the driver soon realized he could not see where he was going. He looked back, and the schoolhouse was out of sight. He knew a graded road running north and south was about a mile to the east, and he thought with luck he would hit that road and follow it. But instead, he went in circles, around and around in what is known as Dead Horse Lake. No water in it.
The storm by now was at full speed, visibility was zero, and snow was beginning to turn to powder. The temperature had dropped from sixty above to close to zero. The driver could not see a thing, all landmarks went out of sight, and he asked the kids to look for something they might recognize. The driver decided he would try and get back to the schoolhouse, for he knew he had not gone very far.
He started up again, and as he circled the lake bed, his turns got bigger and bigger until he came to the outer edge, and in his last circle he went straight across the road he was searching for. The front wheels made the bar ditch, but the back ones did not. The engine was only running on three or four cylinders, and it died for good right there.
We had to plow through snowdrifts so deep the horse could not stand and fell to his knees.
The kids started to clap their hands in joy and hollered, “We made it!” for they always crossed a ditch getting in and out of the schoolyard, and they thought they had got back where they started. But the driver knew better and told the kids, “No, we are somewhere else, and lost.” That scared the kids, and they started asking, “Now what are we going to do?” The driver told the kids, “I will dump the water out of this cream can”—a ten-gallon can they had hauled water to the school each day in—“and build a fire.” So he tore the seats out and got a fire going inside the bus. There they sat all day and temperatures dropped to thirty below zero, and it wasn’t long till the bus started to fill up with snow. Things started to look bad, and the driver told the kids, “Keep moving, or we all are going to freeze.” He told the kids stories and tried to keep them close to the fire. They burned up all the seats; then they burned their books.
Those hours of hell made me grow up real fast, and I can still see the frozen faces.
Still no help. By this time about nine hours had passed, the kids had already eaten most of their food but had no water, so they licked a little snow now and then to soothe their throats. For the past several hours all whooped together in hopes someone might be passing by and hear them. They were freezing to death and knew it. So night was coming on, and the children began to get tired. The driver tried in desperation to keep the kids from going to sleep. He would watch every child; but his hands became so numb, and his mind became slower and slower. Knowing what was taking place, he asked some of the older children to rub each other’s faces and legs and arms. That seemed to be the only and last thing that could be done before death set in. He even coaxed them to fight, to get their blood stirred up.
One of the kids broke out a window on the north side, letting snow by the bucket fall in. The bus soon filled up. That made moving about worse by the minute. They had no light; they could not see one another, snow blowing in and kids tramping it down till it was about three feet deep in the bus. Keeping those kids on top and not trampling the small ones was almost impossible. This went on all night, and still help was not in sight. Some of the kids heroically gave their coats to others. They prayed to give them strength to hold out till morning. By morning, when it was just light enough to see, the driver tried to rally the children but noticed two would not move. They were already frozen stiff. One of them was the girl fifteen years old. She died holding her sister on her lap. The other was the boy about eight. The kids pulled them to the back of the bus and laid them on top of one another, facedown, for the oldest girl froze with her eyes open and the kids thought she was staring at them. That scared the rest, and panic set in.