Remembering deadly Sierra bus crash
A shiver ran down my spine recently as I drove along U.S. Highway 395 and paused at a clearing on the bank of the Walker River about 55 miles south of Carson City.
I feel that shiver every time I drive past this spot, approximately 35 miles south and 15 miles west of the Nevada-California state line near the 7,519-foot Devil’s Gate Pass in the rugged Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.
For it was here, 28 years ago that one of the nation’s deadliest bus tragedies occurred, killing 21 and injuring 22 senior citizens on their way home to Southern California following a week-long gambling excursion to Carson City, Reno and Lake Tahoe.
The May 30, 1986, disaster transpired 16 months after an earlier catastrophic gaming excursion which took place in Reno: The Jan. 2, 1985, crash of a Minneapolis-bound Lockheed Electra four-engine turboprop operated by Galaxy Airlines that fell to earth on takeoff at the Reno airport at 1:04 a.m.
Of the 71 passengers and crew aboard that charter flight, 70 were killed. The sole survivor was a 17-year-old boy who was thrown clear of the wreckage and landed upright — still in his seat — on Reno’s South Virginia Street. He was able to walk away with only slight injuries.
Many Nevadans in May 1986 were still mourning those killed in the Reno airplane holocaust, and now their sympathies and prayers turned to the dead and critically injured bus passengers, whose chartered, German-made bus operated by Starline Sightseeing Tours of Hollywood, had fallen into the icy waters of the Walker River at 10:30 a.m. that fateful day.
The 43 passengers aboard the bus, whose ages ranged from 62 to 96, had spent the previous night at the Ormsby House Hotel and Casino in Carson City. The next day, the day of the crash, had been a highlight of their trip, for they had had breakfast at the Governor’s Mansion where they were greeted individually by Gov. Richard Bryan and his wife, Bonnie.
Following their meal, they took their seats on the bus, driven by 48-year-old Ernst Klimeck, and headed home south on Highway 395 to their apartments in the 13-story Christian Towers in Santa Monica near the Pacific Ocean.
But approximately an hour later, all hell broke loose.
The bus, which several survivors later said was speeding and careening back and forth along the twisting mountain highway that parallels the river, went out of control, crashed through a fence and flipped over at least three times before coming to a rest in the cold and fast-moving river in California’s far-northern Mono County.
Fisherman and passing motorists who rushed to and passengers’ aid described the scene as “hellish” and “looking like a battlefield.”
“We could hear screams from inside the bus… mangled and entangled bodies lay in the bus and were being washed down the river… some of the passengers who managed to get out of the bus were wandering around in shock and bleeding profusely from their injuries,” exclaimed the rescuers.
The sole doctor at the hospital in Bridgeport, 20 miles to the south, arrived with two nurses, but they were able to cope with just a handful of the mass casualties. Assistance also arrived from Navy and Marine Corps personnel serving at the nearby cold weather warfare training camp, who tended to the injured, retrieved several bodies from the river and lashed ropes from the bus chassis to large trees on the shoreline.
Nearly 20 ambulances arrived from Nevada and California, and the injured were taken to the Carson-Tahoe Regional Medical Center in Carson City, St. Mary’s Hospital and the Washoe Medical Center (now the Renown Regional Medical Center) in Reno and hospitals in Bridgeport, Bishop and Mammoth.
When the crash occurred, I was in my ninth year as owner-publisher of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard, and was in Reno at the time of the bus accident. I attempted to reach the crash site, but was turned away by Nevada and California highway patrol officers at Topaz Lake who told me that Highway 395 was clogged with emergency vehicles and I would have no hope of reaching the accident scene until late evening. Thus, I was unable to cover the crash.
Ernst Klimeck, the bus driver, who suffered moderate injuries in the accident, was later shown to have accumulated multiple speeding and other violations on his driving record. He was convicted of manslaughter for driving the bus 65 to 68 miles per hour in a 40 mph zone and sentenced to four years in a California state prison.
The bus company’s insurance carrier paid a $5 million settlement for damage claims filed by survivors of the accident and relatives of the 21 killed.
Although the bus tragedy was one of the worst in U.S. history, the deadliest was recorded in 1963 when a makeshift bus carrying Mexican migrant farm workers was struck by a 71-car freight train traveling at an estimated 65 miles per hour as it drove through a railroad crossing near Chualar in California’s Salinas Valley.
Of the 58 aboard the bus, 32 were killed and 25 injured.
David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus of the LVN.