Towner Tragedy

A surprise blizzard trapped school bus driver Carl Miller and 20 children in this converted 1929 farm truck, shown mired in the snow. Miller and five of the children died as a result.

Kiowa County Public Library

Freak 1931 spring storm on Colorado’s Eastern Plains trapped 20 children on school bus

A simple marble marker, etched with the names of five young children and a school bus driver, sits alongside lonesome Kiowa County Road 78 in southeastern Colorado. Someone recently left a plastic toy – a small yellow school bus – atop the polished gray stone. Someone else placed a pair of plastic flower bouquets on the fence around it.

Clearly, memories of what became known nationally as the Towner Tragedy have not faded, although nearly 90 winters have passed since then. Locals call it the Pleasant Hill School Bus Tragedy, after the small school on the windswept plains between Towner and Holly. It was the most heartbreaking weather event in Colorado history, and the entire nation mourned.

Almost 700 people attended the monument dedication on Oct. 7, 1931, in Holly Cemetery.

Still in the iron grip of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, Colorado residents likely felt optimistic and rejuvenated when they awoke to a beautiful spring-like day on the morning of March 26, 1931. 

Temperatures had already reached the 60-degree mark. It was so pleasant, many remember, that some of the schoolchildren left their winter coats, hats and mittens behind as they stepped aboard the makeshift bus driven by local farmer and neighbor Carl Miller.

The bus was a 1929 Chevrolet farm truck that had been converted to carry approximately 20 students – in tight quarters – to and from the Pleasant Hill School. It had no heater, no radio and no safety equipment. Small wooden benches had been installed inside the cracker-box-like cab, and two pieces of cardboard had been used to patch up a pair of broken windows in the back of the bus.

As Miller made his rounds that morning through the grid-like sections of farms and fields, the weather was rapidly changing. An ominous cloud bank was developing to the north, growing larger and more ferocious by the minute. By the time the bus pulled into the schoolyard, the temperature had dropped to freezing, and large snowflakes were swirling in the rising wind. It was apparent that a full-blown blizzard was on its way.

Miller argued that everyone should shelter inside the little school. But two young teachers overruled him, saying the students should be immediately returned to their parents. No sooner had Carl reloaded the Chevy and driven away with the children than he became lost in a whiteout. It was only 9 a.m., and he couldn’t see the road ahead. 

Miller’s bus became stuck in the drifting snow 1 ½ miles from the school – and less than 500 yards from a farmhouse. But he and the children had no idea where they were. The blizzard had turned their world into a blinding sheet of white, making it impossible to find shelter – or for their loved ones to find their stranded bus.

For the next 30 hours of so, the victims would remain huddled inside the vehicle, stuck in the ditch, mired in the snow, as the temperature plummeted to 20 degrees below zero. The 70-mph winds blew out the cardboard over the broken windows, and snow began to fill the interior of the bus. 

The surviving children recovered from extreme hypothermia and frostbite in Charles Maxwell Hospital in Lamar.

The children survived the night by talking, singing, moving around and keeping each other from falling asleep. Miller helped keep them awake because he knew sleep meant certain death. By the next morning, the temperature in nearby Holly was recorded at 31 degrees below zero, with a wind chill of 105 degrees below. Miller decided their only hope was for him to set out on foot to find help. 

As he left the vehicle that morning, he reportedly told the 20 children inside the freezing bus, “I’m going for help, and we’ll all have pancakes for breakfast.” Survivors remembered he told them to keep moving and not to fall asleep.

Rescuers found his frozen body the next day, partially drifted over with snow several miles south of the stranded bus. One of Miller’s hands was bloodied and shredded by the barbed wire fence he had used as a handrail in his desperate search for help.

By the time rescuers reached the stranded vehicle, three of the children had frozen to death – they went to sleep and never woke up – and two more died shortly after of severe hypothermia. The victims were Robert Brown, Louise Stonebraker, Arlo Untiedt, Kenneth Johnson and Mary Miller, all between the ages of 7 and 13. Little Mary was the 8-year-old daughter of the bus driver.

Six of the 20 passengers on the bus were the Huffaker children, whose home was 3 ½ miles from the school. Ranging in age from 14-year-old Alice, to the youngest, 7-year-old Laura, the Huffaker children were dressed in warmer clothes than the other children, according to Laura’s granddaughter, Bessie Hall. 
Laura, who only recently began sharing details of that tragic ordeal, told her granddaughter that the children’s mother made sure they were bundled up before boarding the bus that morning.

All six of the Huffaker children survived. But heavy winter clothing wasn’t the only thing that kept them alive, according to Hall.

On Laura (Huffaker) Loeher’s 95th birthday in early November 2018, which she celebrated with family and friends in an assisted-living facility in Fairland, Oklahoma, her granddaughter spoke of Aunt Alice’s heroics.

“Members of our family firmly believe that Alice was the biggest reason all of the siblings survived,” Hall said. “Grandma did not have one bit of frostbite anywhere on her, and she sat on Alice’s lap that entire night inside the school bus. It’s a miracle, if you think about it. She kept her brothers and sisters awake, warm and alive.”
In the days and weeks following the Towner Tragedy, Alice lost all of the skin from her frozen hands and fingers. Her little sister remembered that Alice’s hands “burned for years” from nerve damage.

IN THE AFTERMATH of the Towner Tragedy, families called for improved school safety protocol. Buses painted National School Bus Chrome, the vibrant, yellow hue still used today because of its high-visibility at dawn and dusk, soon appeared across the nation. Improved transportation standards for school districts went into effect from coast to coast. Those standards remain in place today.

Someday, if you happen to be driving down that lonesome stretch of highway between Towner and Holly, put your foot on the brake. Take a moment to stop and read that historical marker. And as you stand there, listen. In the early morning or late afternoon, you might hear a solitary yellow school bus traveling that same road.

As it rumbles past, you can take comfort in the knowledge that five young children and a heroic fellow named Carl did not die in vain. 

This story originally appeared in the March April 2019 issue. Click here to subscribe and get other great stories about Colorado.

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