The Worst Bus Crash in the Nation’s History Happened 36 Years Ago in Martinez

May 21, 2012 8:00 am · 57 comments

36 years ago today, on May 21, 1976, 28 students and one teacher from the Yuba City High School choir died after their bus crashed and fell 30 feet to the ground on the Marina Vista offramp on southbound Interstate-680 in Martinez.

The driver apparently lost control of the bus and crashed while negotiating a sharp turn on the offramp, a fatal mistake that ended the lives of 29 people.

The crash remains the deadliest bus crash in the history of the United States.

photo credit: Facebook – Yuba City High School Choir Memorial in Martinez

Jelloshots May 21, 2012 at 8:01 AM

I remember that day vividly. Horrible horrible accident.

EdiBirsan May 21, 2012 at 8:06 AM

As an additional link to Concord, the first Sheriff on the scene was Bill Shinn who is on the City Council here.

TinFoiler May 21, 2012 at 8:14 AM

36 years and still NO seatbelts on school buses.

KenInConcord May 21, 2012 at 8:16 AM

When I was young we lived next to John Muir Hospital. I remember going down to see the helicopter(s) land and finding so many ambulances with injured kids. I still remember it so clearly.

Wow! 36 years ago…. really

D May 21, 2012 at 8:25 AM

This was my graduation year. I remember it clearly (sad) Our choir was on tour too. This was so sad and tragic… That is still a scary off ramp if you take it too fast, even though they raised the railing..

Roid Rage May 21, 2012 at 8:30 AM

Very sad, I remember that day.

busy mom May 21, 2012 at 8:30 AM

I always remember this when I take that off ramp even though I wasn’t born when it happened!

ANONYMOUS May 21, 2012 at 8:46 AM

Wow. I was a little kid when this happened and it didn’t really hit me until right now. Realizing how many high school students died. I guess I just don’t remember the impact of that at that time as a kid. Plus my guess is my parents didn’t share all the that with me, such that I barely remember this. But now that I have high schoolers who have taken long trips on buses, this makes me feel sick and so sad for these families. 🙁 How awful. Thanks for helping us all remember these families at this time.

Anon777 May 21, 2012 at 9:23 AM

I do vaguely remember this and am amazed that 36 years later, school buses still do not have seat belts. God Bless all involved.

MLA May 21, 2012 at 9:27 AM

That is such a sad story. They we all so young…it makes me cry.

Christina May 21, 2012 at 9:40 AM

School buses *do* have seat belts, this was a requirement when our school bus program renegotiated their busing contract a few years back.

Grammy May 21, 2012 at 9:47 AM

I remember this day well. I was at work in downtown Concord, and because we were a large employer we were contacted by Mt Diablo Hospital and asked to send down employees to donate blood. Sadly the transfusions weren’t needed.

Remember well May 21, 2012 at 9:56 AM

I cannot believe it’s been 36 years! A very sad day, and one I remember so well.

As far as seatbelts, the reason busses stil dont have them is because in the event of an accident, it would take longer to free so many passengers from seatbelts if need be, to rescue. I know, it doesn’t make much sense but that is why. My sister has driven a BIG yellow school bus for 23 years.

Lori May 21, 2012 at 10:05 AM

I wasn’t around then but what a terrible thing to happen. Were there any survivors?

Antler May 21, 2012 at 10:12 AM

Tin Foiler at #3 ~ ~ ~ I agree 100% with your point!

Lovemydogs May 21, 2012 at 10:17 AM

I was in fifth grade. My class was scheduled to go o camp Loma Mar the following week. I was so scared to get on that bus that I pretended I was sick so I didnt have to go.
I remember it like it was yesterday. I still get chills when I drive over that spot.

Antler May 21, 2012 at 10:19 AM

So, wait… buses (I’m talking state wide) DO have seatbelts now?

I’ve seen school buses pulling out of Glazier Drive onto Concord Boulevard recently. That is such a threat to school children on the bus and also to Boulevard traffic……completely blind curve in Concord Boulevard at that point. I’ve left a message at Mountain View School about it (just guessing it was from there, though, because that’s the closest elementary school). No return call.

karamil May 21, 2012 at 10:59 AM

I too remember that day very well. I was sick at home, and listening to the radio. It hit me extremely hard as I was in high school and also in the choir and we traveled all over as well. I remember the death count going up and up. It brings tears to my eyes now just thinking about all those kids.

Rich C. May 21, 2012 at 11:04 AM

My dad was one of the CHP officers who had to respond to this accident. He still won’t talk about it. I don’t think that seat belts would have saved anyone since the roof of the bus was crushed like a tin can down to the tops of the seats…

VH mtz May 21, 2012 at 11:07 AM

Before “your city council guy” was on the scene..there were local residents from the “non existant” community of Fairview..Fairview is now part of the parking lot for employees@ refinery/plant..My father and neighbors were on the scene and told us of the screams and hoping the fences bare footed to help with the recovery/rescue.. Hats off to the locals not moonlighting for fame,just being human..when you cross the railroad tracks going toward marina on Marina Vista youll see “Fairview” sign on your left.. .R.I.P. children

Be Happy May 21, 2012 at 11:26 AM

I thought a memorial was put under the ramp where it happened. Is this the same one only moved to another spot?

Chester E. Kitty May 21, 2012 at 11:28 AM

I totally remember this … I was 15 years old and heard about it after I got home from school. Tragic!

Peggy May 21, 2012 at 11:34 AM

I have sad memories of that day also, I live in Concord and was at work at another area hospital. We were on standby to receive patient’s able to be transferred, but we didn’t get any. It was a sick feeling all day, wanting to help somehow and not being able to.

Concordejet May 21, 2012 at 11:46 AM

How Sad this is. This really breaks my heart. My sorrow goes out to the children and the teacher.

What intersection was the incident in Martinez? I wonder if it anywhere near the Amtrak station? I go to the Amtrak station once in the while.

At that time, I was living in Stockton when I was age 4. I will have to ask my parents if they remember the accident.

As for the seat belt, The smaller bus did have seat belt due to children with disabilities are requires to have seat belts on the special Education bus. The smaller bus is the size of a van. I still remember riding on the small bus traveling from Lodi to Stockton and Camarillo to Oxnard going to school

:-( May 21, 2012 at 11:50 AM

awful. makes me nervous too because my son is going on a field trip tomorrow!

question May 21, 2012 at 11:52 AM

was there a problem with the brakes… or was it all driver error?

Yikes May 21, 2012 at 12:05 PM

good to reflect on life and how fleeting it can be…be kind to those who have lost loved ones… a tradgedy that touches many still.

Dangerous May 21, 2012 at 12:07 PM

It was the result of a total break failure in single tank system

Mimi (original) May 21, 2012 at 12:13 PM

I lived in Southern Calufornia at the time, and don’t remember this, but years later while I was living in Palm Springs there was a similar horrific school bus accident coming down Mt San Jacinto from the tram. Do u have any comparison information?

Timeto Knockit May 21, 2012 at 12:15 PM

Question 1: There are a lot more names on that memorial plaque than 29. Can anyone explain please?

Question 2: Do you think seatbelt would have really helped in this case?

I was still 6 years from being born when this happened… My heart goes out to everyone effected by this

John May 21, 2012 at 12:16 PM

You didn’t specify about the driver

Did they live/die?

U just said the teacher and the students died.

Radar May 21, 2012 at 12:20 PM

I cant believe it was that long ago. I was going to school at Chico State and was coming home that day from school for the summer, drove right past the scene. Sad. No I didnt stop and take pics, was tempting tho.

Chester E. Kitty May 21, 2012 at 12:24 PM

Timeto Knockit … interesting observation!

I counted the names that have a small mark next to their name and that adds up to 29; however, it doesn’t explain why the other names are on the plaque. Anyone know????

Cindy May 21, 2012 at 12:27 PM

I remember that day well. I was living in Mtz and heard the sirens of the emergency vehicles on the freeway. Our neighbors were on the phone to each other. All we knew was the accident involved a school bus. I avoided that off ramp for years. I thought the accident was due to faulty brakes.
@John, I thought the driver lived.

Timeto Knockit May 21, 2012 at 12:40 PM

I actually did a bunch of research on seat-belts on school buses as soon as I read this story, just out of curiosity. Seems that seat belts on school buses would actually cause more harm than good. Cause horrible whiplash because of no head rests, could cause problems evacuating the bus, and many others. Do a google search and some research if ur interested, kinda informative actually.

Again, if anyone has info on why there are so many names on the plaque, I would love to hear it! Thanks

the Shi ite May 21, 2012 at 12:44 PM

I think all the names on the plaque are everyone that was on the bus – 57 students. Other news articles mention poor brakes or brake failure.

Peanuts Mommy May 21, 2012 at 12:44 PM
Peanuts Mommy May 21, 2012 at 12:46 PM

The names of the survivors and who died are both on the memorial. The ones with the little mark are the deceased.

local94553 May 21, 2012 at 1:06 PM

I so remember that day. I was a TA in the school office. I took the call for which the caller said your school bus just went off the Benicia Bridge. I could not process the informaiton. I gave the phone to the office secretary. It was a horriable day. (It was not from our school). It will be one of the saddest days I remember….

Chuckie the Troll May 21, 2012 at 1:13 PM

I was trained as a school bus driver for a district down south in 1979. This accident was THE case study we used for what to NOT do in an emergency. The accident could have been avoided. The film we saw on the accident was a sort of Blood Alley for bus drivers.

When I mover here my boss pointed to the offramp and started to talk about the bus accident. Seeing the scene made the accident very real for me.

Chuckie the Troll May 21, 2012 at 1:18 PM

The accident was driver error. Standard proceedure whenever you begin to have problems with your bus is to slowly and carefully move toward the shoulder and come to a stop. If the brakes go out, you feather the parking brake or simply glide to a stop. Then, you radio for assistance.

Some people think the driver may have pumped his brakes…another error if it happened.

Iremember May 21, 2012 at 1:20 PM

Yes, I remember when this happened. I remember we had an assembly to remember the victims of this crash @ the middle school I attended waaaaay back in those days. Hard to believe 36 years have pased. My my my I’m old.

Answers to some questions May 21, 2012 at 1:28 PM

The driver lived.

He had been working for a 3rd party transportation company for just a few weeks, and was only able to “legally” drive that bus with students on it because they covered up the words “School Bus” and the flashing red lights. Thus, it was now a “charter” bus.

The air braking system did not work due to a failed air compressor. Ironically, and tragically, the choir director and husband of the teacher on-board the bus was driving a separate car and had flagged down the bus just prior to crossing the Benicia Bridge. He did this because he had noticed smoke, which he and the driver chalked up to the aging bus just burning oil. But he (choir director) forgot to mention the “strap” he had seen flapping under the bus. This “strap” turned out to be the belt for the air compressor.

The driver missed/discounted multiple telltale signs that something was very wrong with that bus, the air system in particular. He confused the red “low oil” warning light–which he thought was illuminated–with the “low air” light, which was in fact the one which was on.

He also apparently missed the speed limit road sign for the exit, because if he would have started to try and slow down for the exit, he would have noticed a problem with the brakes, and still would have had enough time/room to get back into the right-hand lane and coast to a stop on the shoulder.

But even with all that, he still had a shot to save that bus: There was a fully-functioning emergency braking system with enough air that could have stopped the bus. However, because of his unfamiliarity with the bus, he did not know where the switch was to engage the e-braking system.

Not surprised May 21, 2012 at 1:43 PM

wow. 36 years. seems like only yesterday and for many of you too. I’d say that makes the demographics of about my age (51) or older.

Yikes May 21, 2012 at 3:01 PM

there were those following in cars, perhaps their names are on list or students names may have check mark, others may be teachers?

insight from #43 makes it even sadder … safety checks on drivers experience should be automatic

tina May 21, 2012 at 3:05 PM

My Grandfather and my uncle helped to pull the children off the bus…. My Grandpa spoke of the horror he said it was worse seeing the children then the sights he seen at war 🙁

Screwy Louie May 21, 2012 at 3:18 PM

As a DIRECT result of THIS accident, School Bus safety regulations were
overhauled statewide. (see title 9, state vehicle code)
Major improvements to Body (Rollover protection), fuel tank (caged/covered), and brakes (spring brakes that automatically apply when air is lost) have saved hundreds of lives over the last 30+ years.
It’s sad that it takes a tragedy to get things changed alot of the time,
just know that some good did come of this.

Lisa May 21, 2012 at 4:59 PM


The bus went off the Benicia Bridge? I thought it went off an off ramp near martinez.

gaby May 21, 2012 at 5:06 PM

i remberd that day too rest in peace

KelliB May 21, 2012 at 5:34 PM

I remember this day because the students were coming to our high school (Miramonte) for a concert. The student’s never arrived andI remember the announcement that was made about the accident. So tragic.

@Lisa # 48 May 21, 2012 at 5:59 PM

It was the Martinez side of the Benica Bridge off ramp by Shell Oil Refinery.

ph resident May 21, 2012 at 8:21 PM

School buss’s do have seat belts now. I was just on one last week when I went on my son’s field trip to the Oakland Zoo. It was a huge bus, and every seat had three seat belts!

WC resident May 21, 2012 at 8:59 PM

@Concordejet #24 and @Lisa #28 – The bus was southbound on the Benicia bridge and took the first exit after the river. That exit is a 20 MPH loop. The bus took it too fast, went over the side, fell about 20 feet, and landed on its roof. The location is 38.024405,-122.11161

There’s a photo at
and another at×679.jpg

The second photo shows why seat belts would not have mattered. That was a full size school bus.

Rest in Peace children.

Kenji May 21, 2012 at 9:29 PM

Strangely, something similar happened in Albania today. 12 students plus driver killed and many injured when a bus went off the edge of a precipice.

US_DOJ_Gov May 22, 2012 at 1:11 PM

Once the Benicia Bridge ends (Martinez side), the 1st Exit on Southbound-680 is where this occurred.
The Exit/ Off-Ramp is an elevated, sharp, circular, loop with its speed currently limited to 20 MPH.

I still think about this accident whenever I’m passing by this exit while I’m on southbound-680.
I was a small child when this occurred & overheard the adults speaking about it.

Anon May 22, 2012 at 4:51 PM

Along with the vivid memories burned into the minds of numerous local individuals, lets not forget about all of the Emergency Care workers that responded that day and the toll it took on them.

May the Yuba City students that perished that day rest in peace.

US_DOJ_Gov May 22, 2012 at 8:09 PM

Anon #56:


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