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About Utah: Bus crash in 1938 led to train laws

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A recent column regarding the phenomenal safety record of school buses in both Utah and the United States — on average, less than two deaths every year per billion miles traveled — brought a response from a reader who, while praising the good news, pointed out that it was a Utah tragedy that helped put safety first.

DeVon Andrus of Cedar City wrote, "I endorse everything said about the safety on school buses. However, there are a few of us who remember a day in December 1938 when the worst school bus accident in the history of the United States occurred in Sandy, Utah. As a result of this accident, laws were passed in every state regulating bus travel when crossing railroad tracks. … Bus drivers were required to stop and open the door, look both ways and listen before crossing the tracks."

It was Dec. 1, 1938, when a school bus carrying 39 students to Jordan High School in Sandy met head-on with a 50-car freight train during a raging blizzard.

The calamitous confluence occurred at a point not far from where the Sandy city offices now stand.

"The Flying Ute," belonging to the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, heading north, was an hour late because of the snowstorm.

Farrold "Slim" Silcox, the 29-year-old driver of the school bus, stopped as required by law at the railroad crossing that then existed at 300 West and slightly north of 10600 South.

The blizzard was blinding. "Visibility was zero. I can't remember a storm worse than that one," said Andrus, who was a fifth-grader at the time and living in nearby Draper. But since Silcox had crossed these tracks daily at this time for the past three years and never encountered The Flying Ute, he proceeded across.

Traveling at 60 miles per hour, the train dragged the school bus almost half a mile before it could stop.

Twenty-five school kids died, plus Slim Silcox. It remains the worst railroad crossing tragedy in U.S. history.

After that, in addition to having to stop at all railroad crossings, the law required school bus drivers to open the door and their side window, and listen, before proceeding.

For a time, a "lookout" was also required — a student who would step off the bus and visually check down the tracks. Later, this practice was abandoned because it put the lookout in jeopardy.

But 71 years later, the "open door" policy is still in effect — even if, as Andrus suggests, it isn't always strictly adhered to.

"For many years, I have noted that most drivers don't come to a full stop and only crack the door before slamming it shut again and pushing down on the accelerator to get back up to speed," he said. "I'm sometimes tempted to tell them the story of the Jordan school bus accident but always chicken out because they would just think I am nuts and certainly wouldn't believe that the law is a direct result of that accident."

But for those "of the right age," it will be something they'll never forget.

"Just about everyone in the south end of the valley was affected personally," recalled Andrus, who is 81 and now lives in Cedar City. "I knew three or four of the kids that were killed, even though they were several years older."

Mostly, he remembers the relief he and his family felt that morning when his older brother, Tone, walked through the door.

Tone also drove school bus — and had to cross the tracks — and stopped at the high school.

Dismissed from Draper Elementary School — all the district's classes were canceled — Andrus remembered, "I worried all the way home. When I arrived, I found my parents listening to the radio and worrying more intensely than me. Newscasts confirmed that the bus driver had blond hair and the accident happened within sight of the high school. We stewed about whether or not it was Tone, who had blond hair and had to cross the tracks three times, until he came to our house to reassure us. We were happy it was not Tone, but very sorry to hear that Slim Silcox had been killed. He topped beets for my father.

"It was a terrible thing," he said. "Nobody wanted to ever see anything like that happen again."

And so far, it hasn't.

Lee Benson's column runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com