In 2011, when I was the transportation supervisor for Merced (Calif.) City School District, my wife told me about a historic school bus-train crash that was back in the news.
A local museum had an exhibit about the tragedy, and the city of Merced was opening a new underpass at the location where the crash had taken place 80 years prior. The May 7, 1931, bus-train collision claimed the lives of seven students and the school bus driver.
Upon learning that one of the surviving passengers who was on the school bus that day was still in the area, I invited him to participate in a one-of-a-kind training program. Our school bus drivers would hear about the crash firsthand from survivor Jesse Gaines, and they would learn more about rail crossing safety with a presentation by Operation Lifesaver.
On May 7, 1931, a total of 57 passengers from several elementary schools in the Merced Union Grammar School District were on board the bus.
School bus driver Floyd Cregger, 59, reportedly had a five-year record of unimpeachable conduct as a driver with the school district. He had not been involved in any accidents and had driven over that crossing more than 3,500 times. Some neighbors near the crash said that they never saw Cregger make the crossing without first coming to a complete stop.
After the crash, Capt. W.A. Burch of the California Highway Patrol obtained a statement from Cregger:
“I was wide awake Thursday,” the school bus driver said. “I stopped the same as I ever do. I didn’t do it every time. I don’t swear that I do it every time, but I stopped 10 feet back from the tracks. They told me at the library that was the law, and that’s what I did. I stopped and had my bus in low; before I got into second I was hit. I never saw anything. I didn’t see the train until it hit us. The wigwag signal was not swinging. I don’t know how it happened. Yes the bus was in good condition. The brakes were OK. Everything about the bus was in good condition.”
One of the takeaways from revisiting this bus-train crash was that Cregger was not accustomed to expect a train at the time he crossed the tracks. That particular freight train did not run on schedule that day. This point reminded me of the old Operation Lifesaver saying, “Any time is train time.”
Also, in the training session for our drivers at Merced City School District, crash survivor Jesse Gaines noted that sometimes his bus driver would let him open and close the door on the bus. His personal recollections made a significant impact on our bus drivers.
Another lesson learned from the 1931 crash: The normal accommodations of the school bus showed that it had seats for about 35 children and a driver. On the day of the crash, there were 57 students on the bus along with the driver — more than 60% over its normal capacity.
The vehicle was a 1927 one-ton Moreland truck with an enclosed wooden top and sides. It had been in operation in Merced for four years. Leather-covered seats lined both sides inside the bus, and five rows of double seats were in the center.
The engine, steering apparatus, and running gear of the bus were in good shape, and the bus had recently been serviced. While the brakes on the bus had previously been condemned as too small for the size of the truck, they were, in fact, determined to be within legal requirements. The California Highway Patrol did not find any evidence that brake failure had caused the crash.
The bus had left the school grounds loaded with children who had been dismissed early that afternoon. Seven minutes later, the bus had traveled to the G Street railroad crossing.
As the school bus reached the middle of the crossing, the slow-moving train struck the bus in the middle, pushing it 40 feet down the tracks, where it rolled over.
School bus passenger Jesse Gaines, who was 88 in 2011 when he came to our driver training program, shared jarring memories from the crash, such as hearing the cries of other children on the bus.
Debris was strewn along the path. One witness stated that “kids flew in every direction.” Some passengers were found wandering blocks away from the scene.
Seven students who were on the bus died as a result of the crash.
The next day, May 8, Cregger’s injuries were listed as lacerations of the head and body and minor bone fractures, and his physicians declared that he would recover. Cregger’s son, Dr. Floyd Cregger of Los Angeles, arrived in Merced to take care of his father’s treatment. The son reportedly refused investigating officers permission to question the injured bus driver any further.
At least 15 eyewitnesses saw the freight train tear through the bus. Here’s a statement from a fireman on the train:
“I first saw the bus when the train was 400 feet from the crossing. The bus was going about 12 miles per hour. I kept close watch on it. When we were about 35 feet away and the bus was still coming about 20 feet away I jerked the whistle and hollered at George to stop. I saw the front end of the bus roll on the tracks. I gasped to George ‘My God! It was a school bus!’”
Virgil Eaton, an 11-year-old passenger, said that he saw the wigwag grade crossing signal swinging and then looked to the right and saw the train.
Here’s a statement from the train’s engineer:
“I blew the locomotive whistle at the station board a mile away, slowed down for the switch and whistled for the crossing. The engine bell had been ringing for two miles. Near the crossing the fireman grabbed the whistle and hollered ‘Hold her!’ I pulled on the emergency brakes, put on the sand and threw off her throttle. I was on the right side of the train and hence didn’t see the bus. The train was going 15 miles per hour at the crossing.”
Other drivers on the street behind the bus told Burch, the California Highway Patrol captain, that they were driving up behind the bus before the crash. Both said that they saw the train coming and the wigwag signal working and anticipated a collision. They said that the bus did not stop before the crossing.
Another passenger on the school bus was 8-year-old Merilyn Robinson. Her father, John Robinson, witnessed the crash:
“I was driving on the other side of G Street towards the tracks,” he said. “I saw the train two blocks away and followed it. Just as it reached the crossing I saw the nose of the bus fly in the air and the kids fly out. ... I rushed up and found my little girl 30 feet from the crossing.”
Merilyn Robinson was seriously injured. On May 11, four days after the crash, she was released from the hospital. The same day, her uncle, state Assemblyman C. Ray Robinson, introduced a resolution that proposed a two-year study of grade crossings and their potential elimination.
Also on May 11, the condition of Cregger, the school bus driver, had taken a turn for the worse. Doctors said that there were several broken bones in his back. He died several days later.
Like other historic bus-train crashes, the 1931 tragedy in Merced is a stark reminder of what is at stake at highway-rail grades — especially with children on board. School bus driver training and vigilance are vital to ensure safe crossings.
Louk Markham worked in pupil transportation for more than 40 years as a supervisor and a school bus driver. Sarah Lim, director and archivist for the Merced County (Calif.) Courthouse Museum, contributed to this article with original research on the 1931 bus-train crash.