GUNNISON — The last photographs taken of 16-year-old Pat Graham are framed on the wall of his childhood home. A handsome brown-haired boy is smiling in a school portrait and looking serious wearing his No. 25 football uniform. The colors are fading.
His mother has cherished these images for 50 years.
“Pat had so many plans,” said Zeta Graham, gently pulling a single black frame from her hallway last week, then stepping into the living room for a seat. “He didn’t have a chance to do very much.”
Graham, 95, lives on her own, is strong-minded, social and still driving. Her blue eyes glow from behind her glasses. She’s known by multiple generations of locals here as Mrs. Graham after 21 years teaching Gunnison middle schoolers.
Her phone has been ringing more than usual lately.
“I could brag all day about my kids,” Graham said. “My mouth is going all the time.”
Travel south of town down a dirt road toward the shadow of Hartman Rocks in high-country desert and find the quiet white ranch home with a green tin roof and matching trim. Graham, a mother of four boys and grandmother of two girls, wants to share Pat’s story.
Despite the pain. Her recollection of Sept. 11, 1971, is mostly a blur. She got the news in a phone call.
The Gunnison High School junior varsity football team traveled eastbound on U.S. 50 over Monarch Pass for a game in nearby Salida. Forty-five players, two coaches and one driver reached the summit but not their final destination. The transmission on the bus failed, sending the bus careening several miles on a 6% downhill grade. It rolled two and a half times before crashing on its roof just off the highway next to a gas station.
The majority of passengers were ejected; more than 20 were severely injured. Nine people — including eight players and one assistant coach — died, including Pat.
Pat was a bubbly junior who loved airplanes, wanted his pilot’s license and dreamed of someday visiting Europe. He never came home.
“Pat was right at a peak ready to fly. Literally as well as figuratively,” Graham said. “It was hard for me.”
Yet public understanding and remembrance of the crash are limited.
In 1971, the State House of Representatives enacted Joint Resolution 97-1021 to designate Sept. 11 of each year as “Colorado Bus Safety Day.” But the holiday is not currently listed on the Colorado Department of Education’s calendar, per department spokeswoman Dana Smith.
The Gunnison community at large seldom spoke publicly about the crash for decades, locals told The Denver Post. The school did not provide additional grief counselors. Graham, after only two weeks away, went back to work. She said school administrators instructed teachers not to discuss the crash or bus safety with their students.
Graham did not bond with other families who lost children in the crash. Some parents avoided eye contact in the supermarket.
“I guess they didn’t know what to do,” Graham said. “They shoved it aside.”
However, on Saturday, on the 50th anniversary of Gunnison’s darkest hour, the community brought new light to its tragedy.
Hundreds gathered at Cowboy Memorial Stadium for the GHS football homecoming game with the families of victims, survivors, and 1971 teammates all in attendance. A pregame ceremony honored all of those lost in the crash. The Gunnison community later met at the local Elks Lodge to reminisce about their lives.
Event organizers are hopeful it ensures the memory of those nine lost in the crash — Mark Broadwater (15), Kent Cooper (14), Tim Dutton (14), assistant coach L.D. Floyd (28), Graham (16), Brad Hall (15), Ted Maw (17), Billy Miles (14) and Mike Pasqua (15) — live in the hearts of high school football players everywhere.
“I wanted someone to blame, but all I did was get a stomach ache, and it didn’t help a bit,” Graham said. “You’ve got to find the good.”
Pat MacIntosh, 65, was a Gunnison High School freshman in 1971. He got thrown from the bus and survived.
MacIntosh still lives in Gunnison and will retire next month as the vehicle fleet manager for the city. Triggering flashbacks remind him of the crash “quite often.”
The scent of burning rubber. Picking up speed. The sound of metal tire rims scraping asphalt. That sensation of turning over and over and over… “Most days something goes on that you’re like: Yeah, there is your warning. You’ve had these (memories) before. Don’t go there,” MacIntosh said.
He spent many years suppressing guilt. Why did other players have to die and not me? MacIntosh called it a “nightmare.”
But, in 1996, on the 25th anniversary of the crash, a handful of former teammates and classmates started a nonprofit — The 1971 GHS Football Memorial Foundation — and invited survivors and their families to Gunnison for a jersey retirement ceremony. MacIntosh discovered a new meaning behind the crash.
“The parents just don’t want their child forgotten. That’s the main thing. They got (their) life cut short and they don’t want them cut out of the whole picture,” MacIntosh said. “When a community changes, like this one did, there are a lot of people who don’t have a clue.”
The bus left GHS that fateful morning on a roughly 50-mile journey. Perfect fall weather. MacIntosh recalls a slow climb up the 11,312-foot mountain pass. The mood changed quickly on the terrifying descent.
“It just got faster and faster,” MacIntosh said. “Now, we’re starting to get into a corner that has people coming uphill and people going downhill in low gear trying to keep their loads slow.”
A report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration later noted that an “inexperienced driver” overcorrected on the final turn. The bus barreled out of control when the manual transmission failed and the driver was unable to downshift. The breaks were not designed to stop a load that heavy after it reached an estimated 70 miles per hour.
The bus flipped while avoiding an oncoming car and flatbed truck. Once rolling, the bus roof lacked a sufficient rivet structure and the force of the crash peeled it open like a tin can. The bus did not have seatbelts.
“When I hit the ground, I had one of those slide-up window frames still in my hand. It was whatever I grabbed. (The bus) just threw you the other way,” MacIntosh said. “I was able to get up and help once people started coming down there and stopping on the highway. The bus was on top of somebody.
“Their legs were out and their body was under that part of the bus. There were five or six people that just kind of rocked it up a little bit and slid him out. … When I turned to walk away, I just fell to the ground.”
Fort Carson military transport helicopters were flown in to evacuate players with significant injuries. MacIntosh said a local man pulled up in his truck at the crash site and took him to a nearby hospital in Salida. MacIntosh had broken a hip socket in three places.
It has taken MacIntosh decades to feel comfortable enough to talk about his memories from that day. He finds some peace knowing that the unthinkable event inspired action to protect future riders.
Paul Medina was Gunnison’s district transportation manager and served on a statewide committee after the crash that developed minimum bus safety standards. He said the national school bus manufacturer Wayne Co. later offered a new body style — called the “Gunnison Package” — that included high-backed seats, reinforced side posts, strengthened roof panels, and more rivets placed closer together.
Runaway truck ramps were installed on both sides of Monarch Pass. Bus drivers are also provided more training on vehicles equipped with advanced electronic brake systems. But seat belts remain a point of contention. There are only eight states (Arkansas, California, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York and Texas) currently with laws that require them on school buses.
In Colorado, school buses are designed to keep riders safe with a theory known as compartmentalization, as defined by the NHTSA. It suggests that “children are protected from crashes by strong, closely-spaced seats that have energy-absorbing seat backs.”
“As I grew older and was putting my kids on those buses, that meant a whole lot to me,” said Matt Robbins, a ’73 GHS graduate, who later started the school’s football memorial foundation. “A lot of people in Colorado don’t realize that if you’ve ridden inside a school bus from the mid-70s on, they’ve all ridden a safer bus because of the accident.”
The northeast corner of Gunnison Cemetery is quiet on this day where Cottonwood trees are scattered amid lush grass as a red sun lowers on the horizon. Eight GHS football players and their assistant coach are buried here, together in a row, beneath a tall centered gravestone with all of their faces.
Engraved in capital letters at the bottom: PERHAPS GOD NEEDED A FOOTBALL TEAM IN HEAVEN.
“I always went out and changed flowers every season,” said Zeta Graham. “Now, I can’t do as much. This old age interferes with a lot of things.”
A new generation is doing its best to make sure Pat and the boys are never forgotten.
Walk past the front doors of GHS and the first thing you’ll notice inside the commons area are eight jerseys framed high on the wall.
First-year head football coach Paul Vickers, GHS class of ‘89, begins education about the crash starting with eighth-graders feeding into his program. The memorial foundation also grants college scholarships each fall to a pair of GHS graduates that is renewable for up to four years — with applicants picked based on their “ability to overcome adverse circumstances, financial need, academic standing, and school, activity and community involvement.”
“The memorial has to be real and brought back to what we need to know for everyone as we go through life,” Vickers said. “It builds more community pride.”
Several weeks ago, while planning the 50th-anniversary football game, a player’s suggestion proved the message is working. Senior fullback/linebacker Sam Buckhanan asked if it would be possible for the team to wear “71” stickers on the back of their helmets.
“It’s a round white sticker with black numbers and a red outline,” said Buckhanan, a GHS captain this season. “We’ve honored those kids ever since the crash, so being the 50th anniversary, we wanted to add onto it. The tradition came to put the 71 on our helmets and always have them be a part of our team.”
Graham is thankful for that message now five decades removed from the crash. But grief processes differently when you’re 95 years old. Graham has outlived three of her four sons. “I’ve been losing people just right and left,” she said.
Back in Graham’s living room, she rises from her chair gripping the black photo frame, and slowly walks back toward the hallway. She is hanging on to the things she loves the most.
“This one belongs on the wall,” she said.
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