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Homework assignment handed to family member during bus crash memorial

GLENDALE, Kane County — On Dec. 1, 1938, 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.

Twenty-six people were killed, including 25 students. It is considered the worst railroad crossing accident in the history of the U.S.

Seventy-five years later, on Dec. 2, a memorial was unveiled in South Jordan.

"We had a lot of people there (at the memorial)," said Joyce Holder, who lost her sister Virginia Nelson in that bus accident. "There were more than I ever expected to see. I saw a lot of old friends that I haven't seen in years and years."

However, a person Holder had never met is the one she said she couldn’t stop thinking about.

"I heard this woman come up to me, and she asked, ‘Is your name Joyce?' And I said 'Yes.' And she said, ‘I have something I think you might want to have,'" Holder said.

The woman handed Holder an old, crumpled piece of paper.

"She said, ‘I found this the day of the accident, right in the snow by the train tracks,'" Holder said.

It seemed like an old homework assignment, but it had Virginia's handwritten name at the top. Holder said she recognized her sister's handwriting right away. Even though it's been 75 years since she last saw her sister, Holder said she feels closer to her now than ever.

"I said, ‘Oh, my goodness.' And she said, ‘Well, we're driving back to Kanab so we have to go now.' She turned and walked away. I have no idea who she was," Holder said.

Holder said she has a lot of questions about the stranger and her kindness, such as why she kept the paper all these years.

"She never told me her name," Holder said. "She just turned around and walked away."

Less than two weeks after the ceremony, the mystery woman was identified.

Caroleen Chamberlain has papers and items that her family has kept for 75 years and three generations in remembrance of her uncle Carol Stephensen, who also died in the bus crash.

Chamberlain said there was "no doubt" she was going to the memorial. She drove nearly 300 miles from her home in Glendale to go to the ceremony with a piece of paper from that crash that she knew belonged to someone else.

"I knew that if I went to this ceremony, I knew that somebody there would know who this was," Chamberlain said.

The piece of paper Chamberlain had acquired looked like a homework assignment, and written on the top in pencil was the name Virginia Nelson.

"After all those years, it was still there. It said Virginia Nelson, just as plain as anything," Chamberlain said.

During the ceremony, when Virginia Nelson's name was read, Chamberlain noted who stood up. It was Joyce Holder, Nelson's sister.

Afterward, Chamberlain gave the paper to Holder.

"And as we handed it to each other, our hands just touched, and we just spanned all those years. It was amazing," Chamberlain said.

Holder wanted to find the mystery woman to thank her for her act of kindness.

"Oh, it just brings tears to my eyes. It's amazing," she said.

After hearing that Holder wanted to get a hold of her, Chamberlain got in touch with KSL.

"My grandparents had memorabilia from that time, and apparently somebody picked that up and put it in (Stephensen's) things," Chamberlain said. "And so my mother didn't feel like she could throw it away, and I remember her showing it to me with those things."

Now Chamberlain said she has another memory that is priceless.

"It was amazing. It was just amazing. There was no words. We just stood there and hugged each other and cried. It was just amazing," she said.

Email: acabrero@deseretnews.com