On September 17, 1963 an illegally converted vehicle (a flatbed trailer converted into a bus) collided with a freight train. Though this was not a school bus collision, the aftermath led to developments in the school bus industry.
The crash took place in Chualar, California, at a railroad crossing. 32 people died and 25 were injured. The crash was the most fatal auto crash in US History. The passengers were migrant workers that originally lived at the Earl Myers Co labor camp. They were returning after ten hours of harvesting vegetables in Salinas Valley.
The “bus” approached the unmarked railroad crossing in the late afternoon. Though there were no impediments to the line of sight, the bus driver was unable to see the train and slowly crossed the tracks. The train crew applied the brakes, but were unable to stop, hitting the bus in the rear.
Victims were thrown from the “bus” – some of them up to 100 feet. The injuries, fatal and non-fatal, were caused when the victims were dragged between the bus and train or from the twisting and splintering of the bus itself. Still others were hurt by the equipment they’d carried for the harvest.
The driver of the “bus” was uninjured and no one on the train was injured. Many of the victims were difficult to identify since migrant workers at that time were only identified by number. The FBI was the investigating authority since the NTSB had not yet been created.
The bus driver was arrested and charged with 32 counts of felony manslaughter. He denied hearing or seeing the train, and was ultimately acquitted at the December 1963 trial. He was so afraid of retribution that he fled California; he was found by relatives of victims and slaughtered within a year of the crash.
Further investigations indicated that the bus driver was a diabetic and had vision issues. There was a foreman sitting to his right that impaired his vision. But the biggest issue was the poor conversion of the “bus” – and the poor training of the driver who carried only a chauffeur’s license. The first bus and driver regulations were born in the aftermath.