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American Fork band returns to Idaho competition 6 years after tragic accident

POCATELLO — The American Fork High School Band has done more than its fair share of traveling for competitions. It has even been to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.

Band director John Miller joins his students on all trips, but traveling into the past isn't something to which he's accustomed.

In the parking lot of Holt Arena at Idaho State University on Saturday for the Mountain West Marching Invitational, Miller reflected on the last time he was there.

"It brings back a lot of emotion," he said. "This is the very spot where we parked last time. When we finished the performance, I gave her a hug."

Miller is talking about former woodwind instructor Heather Christensen, who was killed in a bus accident on Oct. 10, 2009, while the band was heading back to American Fork from the same competition in Pocatello.

"It was a horrible night," Miller said.

Students who were on the bus said they saw Christensen, 33, reach for the steering wheel after the bus driver blacked out. The bus veered off I-15 about 50 miles north of the Idaho-Utah border, near McCammon, Idaho, and tipped over. Several students and the bus driver suffered minor injuries; Christensen was the only fatality.

Miller said he knew Christensen well. To him, she was far more than a co-worker.

"She was a passionate teacher," he said. "She was my student. She was a drum major for me, and she went on to the University of Utah and got her degree, and she was excited about teaching.

"She taught at Riverton High School for a couple of years and then a charter school up in Springville," Miller said, "and then we were able to convince her to come back here and teach for us. She created some of the most phenomenal woodwind players I've ever had in my life."

The band had not returned to Pocatello since the crash.

"We wanted to make sure all the kids were gone, not in the program anymore," Miller said. "It was just too tender. There's still kids that were on that bus that are still having emotional issues because of what happened that night."

The students Miller took to Pocatello on Saturday never knew Christensen, but they still felt the weight of the day.

"We've had some long talks with some of the band lately about the whole process of what happened," Miller said. "They now know what transpired there, and they feel like they know Heather."

Miller feels the day's weight too, not just because of the trip into the past, but because of who was watching.

"It helps us hold on to a piece of her," said Lara Christensen, Heather's sister.

She and other family members attended Saturday's competition to witness the return of Heather's band. Lara Christensen said her sister died doing what she loved.

"She loved those kids," she said. "She showed so much compassion, but so much drive and dedication."

Lara Christensen said her sister loved those kids so much that she died for them.

"She saved about 58 kids that night," Miller said. "The bus driver passed out, and she reacted quickly. She was in the front seat, jumped there and pushed the driver aside and grabbed the steering wheel. By that time, the bus was already off the road, going down an embankment. There was a culvert on the left side and lava rocks on the right side, and she steered that thing right through."

Those who survived still communicate with Heather Christensen's family.

"There's so many who still post up on our Facebook," Lara Christensen said. "They didn't want to waste their lives because of what Heather did for them. There's been a lot of lives changed and taken paths that they never expected to take. I've had some of them reach out and say, 'My life didn't feel like it was worth it, and then I realized it was worth all of it because she sacrificed hers.'"

The American Fork High School Band was the only one in its division at this year's competition, but Miller said the journey wasn't about winning awards. He made this trip, bringing his students along with him, to bring closure to a painful past.

"This is a real healing thing to me," Miller said. "To know that we can come back and face our fears and drive by that spot with the buses and come in the same stadium, so it was really healing for us."

Miller and Heather Christensen's family agree: She was there waiting for them.

"I felt her here tonight," Miller said Saturday. "She's never really left us."

"She's always around," Lara Christensen said, breaking into tears, "especially when music's playing. She's an angel of music."