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Schoolbus plunges into Lake Chelan, killing 15 students and the driver, on November 26, 1945.
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On November 26, 1945, the driver of a Lake Chelan School District bus carrying 20 young students and a woman, skids off South Lakeshore Road during a snow storm and plunges down a 30-foot embankment into Lake Chelan. The woman and five children manage to escape thorough broken windows and reach the shore, but the driver and 15 students drown in the icy waters. Two bodies are recovered soon after the accident, but the bus and remaining 14 victims disappear. After searching for a week, Navy divers finally find the bus sitting precariously on a ledge in more than 200 feet of water. The bus is carefully hoisted to the surface, but it contains the bodies of only four students and the driver. Lake Chelan has a reputation of never yielding its dead and the bodies of the missing nine victims will never be recovered. It is the worst school-related accident in Washington state history.
A Deep Lake, a Snowy Day
Lake Chelan, located in central Washington state, is approximately 55 miles long, varies from one to two miles wide, and is the third-deepest freshwater lake in the United States, measuring more than 1,500 feet deep in places. The name "Chelan" is a modification of Tsill-anne, the Indian name for the lake, meaning "deep water." Fed by glaciers in the Cascade Mountains, the lake flows into the Columbia River via the Chelan River. The Lake Chelan Dam, built in 1927 at the lake's outlet to generate hydroelectric power, raised the water level 21 feet, requiring construction of new roads on the adjacent mountainsides. Tragically, the new lake-shore roads were unimproved and lacked safety barriers.
On Monday morning, November 26, 1945, Royal J. "Jack" Randle (1921-1945), a Lake Chelan School District bus driver, was proceeding on his normal route along the west side of the lake, from 25-Mile Creek to Chelan, picking up school children. Mrs. Glenna Brown caught a ride on the bus, hoping to keep a dental appointment in Chelan. It had started snowing, but there was only a light accumulation on the unpaved road, so he didn't bother putting on tire chains. But the snowstorm intensified, limiting his vision. Randle, a World War II veteran, had spent 26 months on Attu in the Aleutian Islands as an Army truck driver, so he wasn't intimidated by severe winter weather.
According to surviving witnesses, approximately nine miles from Chelan (now Lake Chelan State Park), a heavy accumulation of snow on the windshield stopped the wipers from working. Unable to see, Randle pulled the bus off the roadway to clear the windshield; however, the bus struck an outcropping of rock, sending it diagonally across the road, over a 50-degree, 30-foot embankment. The bus rolled over twice and came to rest right side up on a large boulder, with the front-end five feet under water. Randle, injured and trapped behind the steering wheel, ordered everyone to get out. There was mass confusion as the students frantically looked for ways to escape. Mari Condon, a student, managed to kick out a window near the back, but as she and others left the bus, it became over-balanced and slid off the rock. Only six passengers managed to escape before the bus disappeared into the lake. The survivors were Mrs. Glenna Brown, age 37; Donald Mack, age 13; Ethel Keck, age 9; Robert Watson, age 8; Peggy Rice, age 16, and Mari Condon, age 17.
Trying to Save the Others
Having escaped through the broken window, Donald Mack swam ashore and clambered up the steep embankment. He found a U.S. Forest Service emergency telephone box on a nearby utility pole and called for help. On the road, Mack was joined by Robert Watson and Mari Condon and they flagged down passing cars, telling the drivers that the school bus had gone into the lake.
Peggy Rice was credited with dragging most of the survivors from the water to safety on the embankment. Ironically, the first car at the scene was driven by her father, Albert R. Rice who, with his son Alan, had been a few minutes behind the school bus. After helping Glenna Brown, Peggy Rice, and Ethel Keck up the embankment, they looked for more survivors but found none; then, Albert Rice and other motorists took the survivors to the hospital in Chelan for medical attention. School officials were unsure how many students were in the bus. It was nearly 1:00 p.m. when an accurate count and their identities were finally established.
Meanwhile, as the alarm spread, emergency vehicles were arriving at the scene from all over Chelan County. The Chelan Fire Department with a resuscitator was the first to arrive and stood by all day and into the night. The Washington State Patrol and Chelan County Sheriff's Office established roadblocks to control traffic through the area. The Forest Service erected a shelter over the nearby emergency telephone that provided direct communications with Chelan and the outside world. The Red Cross set up a small canvas tent on the bank, providing the rescuer workers with hot coffee and sandwiches. A tugboat and 100-foot ore barge, belonging to the Howe Sound Mining Company, were moored at the water's edge above the sunken bus to use as a platform for diving operations. But nothing could be done to retrieve the bodies or raise the bus until men with diving equipment arrived. Meanwhile, the snow continued falling heavily, at about an inch per hour.
The Dives Begin
Late that afternoon, two U.S. Bureau of Reclamation trucks arrived from Grand Coulee Dam, loaded with deep-sea diving equipment and air compressors. After donning their equipment, the divers, brothers Colin and D. S. "Mac" O'Donnell, finally entered the water at 6:10 p.m. Since it was night, the divers used battery-operated spotlights to search the underwater embankment for any sign of the vehicle. They recovered the body of Henry Davis, age 16, and continued searching until 6:35 p.m. without further success. Limited by the length of the air hoses, they were only able to descend 130 feet on the first dive and sent for more air hose. Later that evening, Ben Thorson, a Washington Water Power diver, arrived from Spokane with a truckload of equipment. Meantime, the weather continued hindering rescue and salvage attempts.
On Tuesday, November 27, 1945, the O'Donnells recovered the body of Forman Ronald Ayers, age 13, and followed a trail down a rock ravine marked by scarred rocks, yellow paint scrapings and broken glass. At 200 feet, the divers came to a ledge and the visible end of the trail. It was also the limit to which they could safely descend without special equipment. Recovery efforts were temporarily abandoned and buoys were placed in the water, marking the spots where the bus disappeared and floating debris (papers, lunch boxes and clothing) had been spotted. At the request of the Washington State Patrol, the Thirteenth Naval District in Seattle agreed to take over the recovery operation and dispatched a team of diving specialists and equipment to the lake.
On Wednesday morning, November 28, 1945, Walter McCrea, an underwater salvage expert from Seattle, and seven Navy divers from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island arrived in Chelan with helium diving equipment and a portable decompression chamber, allowing divers to descend to about 450 feet. After talking to the original divers and analyzing soundings, the Navy divers determined the bus probably landed on a shelf of rock 280 feet below the surface and about 150 yards from the spot where it went into the water. The ledge, however, ended abruptly a few yards farther out in the lake, dropping to depths over 1,400 feet. If the bus was not found on the ledge, the experts conceded there would be little chance of recovery. Only a diving bell, used by the Navy for deep salvage operations, could descend to such tremendous depths.
Before descending on a potentially dangerous dive, McCrea decided to sweep the suspect area with drag-lines and grappling hooks. Late that afternoon, power launches commenced dragging operations but they were suspended after only three sweeps because of darkness. The search for the bus resumed the following morning and continued throughout the day, but without success.
On Thursday morning, November 29, 1945, McCrea descended 262 feet into Lake Chelan. He stayed at that depth for nine minutes and covered a circle approximately 60 feet in diameter, searching for traces of the missing school bus. Upon his ascent, McCrea was required to spend four hours in the portable decompression chamber to avoid "the bends," nitrogen bubbles in the blood-stream that can cause excruciating pain, permanent injury, or death. Meantime, dragging operations were resumed and continued throughout the day. The Forest Service towed a big electromagnet along the lake bottom, hoping it would attach to the vehicle's metal body.
On Friday morning, November 30, 1945, the divers began searching at the 130-160-foot level, where two bodies had been found, but farther down the embankment. The dive-team members, taking turns searching throughout the day, finally relocated the path of the lost school bus, late in the afternoon. The last diver into the lake was Lieutenant C. P. Ross who stumbled across the bus's engine-compartment hood while searching in near darkness.
The Bus Is Found
The search resumed in earnest on Saturday morning, December 1, 1945. Chief Petty Officer C. E. Meyers followed the trail of debris and found the bus shortly after 10:00 a.m., resting on a ledge, upside down, 275 feet from the shore, at a depth of 210 feet. After returning to the surface, Meyers was taken to the decompression chamber to recover from his dive. He reported seeing bodies, but visibility inside the bus was poor and he was unable to provide an accurate count.
The next diver, Walter McCrea, fastened cables around the front and rear axles; then, winches carefully hoisted the wrecked bus alongside the barge so the bodies could be removed. Divers found only five victims inside the bus, including the driver, Jack Randle. They continued searching the area around the wreck site for the nine missing children, but recovery efforts were eventually suspended when no additional bodies were found.
Mourning the Dead
The bodies were taken by launch to Chelan city hall where parents could positively identify their children. Fastened against the barge, the bus was towed to the Howe Sound Mining Company dock in Chelan where it was removed from the water by a large crane. The Washington State Patrol, responsible for investigating traffic fatalities on state roads, had the wreck hauled to a police garage so experts could determine if a mechanical failure caused the accident.
On Wednesday, December 5, 1945, funeral services were held for the five victims recovered from school bus on December 1. The city of Chelan closed schools, offices and stores, allowing everyone in the community to attend. Afterward, a memorial service was held on Lake Chelan at the site of the tragic accident, for all of the victims. Small boats circled the area where the bus was found, dropping flowers into the water.
On Thursday, December 20, 1945, the Washington State Patrol released the official results of their investigation into the fatal accident. Chief Herbert W. Algeo explained the accident was caused by a blinding snowstorm that obscured Jack Randle's vision, causing him to collide with a rock outcropping along the right side of the roadway and throwing the bus off its line of travel. Apparently, Randle didn't realize the road was bending to the right and drove diagonally across the road, over the bank into the lake. Although no mechanical defects had been found which could have contributed to the mishap, Algeo vowed to intensify the state patrol's semiannual school-bus inspections.
Chief Algeo went on to say that it was incumbent upon school authorities to prevent busses from operating when weather conditions were unsafe. However, parents in the community pointed out that concrete guardrails, which were supposed to have been built along the lake road, would have prevented the tragedy. Ironically, on Thanksgiving Day, November 22, 1945, a front-page story in the Chelan Valley Mirror had quoted Chelan County Commissioner Leon Cronk as saying that the South Lakeshore Road would be improved and oiled in 1946.
After the tragedy, children in the Lake Chelan School District began collecting money for a memorial to their dead classmates. Later, Chelan businesses took up the cause, adding additional funds. The Chelan community collected enough money to erect a monument and establish a small memorial park, which is located near the site of the accident on state route 971, approximately one mile east of Lake Chelan State Park.
Victims and Survivors
The victims who died in the school bus accident were:
- Lewis Asklund, age 11
- Barbara J. Asklund, age 8
- Forman Ronald Ayres, age 13
- Anna Dam, age 10
- Karl Dam, age 6
- Dorothy M. Davis, age 17
- Henry T. Davis, age 15
- Vernard J. Gilmore, age 7
- Roger Douglas Hale, age 8
- Lenley Stuart Hale, age 6
- Jean E. Keck, age 13
- Donna A. Keck, age 7
- Larry L. Miller, age 6
- Bettie L. Miller, age 9
- Royal J. Randle, age 24, bus driver
- Ruth Hawley, age 9
The survivors were:
- Donald Mack, age 13
- Robert Watson, age 8
- Mrs. Glenna Brown, age 37
- Ethel Keck, age 9
- Mari Condon, age 17
- Peggy Rice, age 16
Don Duncan, Washington: The First One Hundred Years (Seattle: The Seattle Times, 1989) p.74; "15 Children and Driver Die; Five Swim to Safety," The Wenatchee Daily World, November 26, 1945, p. 1; "Second Body Found; Deep-Sea Diving Equipment Coming," Ibid., November 27, 1945, p. 1; Jack Jett, "Grief, Weirdness at Tragedy Scene," Ibid., November 27, 1945, p. 1; "Survivor Tells Story of Crash," Ibid., November 27, 1945, p. 12; "Helium Equipment May Uncover 14 Lost Dead," Ibid., November 28, 1945, p. 1; Karl Stoffel, "8-Year-Old Tells of Bus Tragedy," Ibid., November 28, 1945, p. 1; "Grim Hunt for 14 Resumed Today," Ibid., November 29, 1945, p. 1; "Dragging Operations Are Futile Thus Far," Ibid., November 30, 1945, p. 1; "Wreck Resting on Its Top; No Count of Bodies Is Made," Ibid., December 1, 1945, p. 1; Jack Jett, "Bus Hood Found in Friday Dives," Ibid., December 1, 1945, p. 1; "Bus, 5 Bodies Recovered; Memorial Service Is Set," Ibid., December 3, 1945, p. 1; "700 Attend Services for Chelan Bus Tragedy Victims," Ibid., December 6, 1945, p. 1; "Weather Blamed for Lake Tragedy," Ibid., December 20, 1945, p. 1.
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