A story of unexpected heroism
|Rescue at Spanish Creek
Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. Mac McKinney was a retired electrician that lived his whole life in San Francisco. For years Mac and his wife Kate had planned on building a cabin in the mountains of Northern California when he retired. They wanted to escape city life for a more subdued lifestyle in the mountains. Their two sons had graduated college and moved out of state. One was living in Denver and the other in San Diego, so, nothing was keeping them in the city. Both Mac and Kate had worked hard and invested wisely, so that they could enjoy an early retirement. At the age of fifty five, after working on their dream cabin for two summers they retired to their hideaway in the mountains above Quincy, California.
It was a small community of about two thousand people, in Plumas County, most of which grew up in the surrounding area. The first couple of years, living in the mountain community were like living in seventh heaven for Mac and Kate. They loved the mountain solitude and they fit right in with the people of the community and soon made friends with their neighbors. Unlike living in San Francisco their neighbor’s in Quincy lived several miles apart and they saw, maybe, only one or two of them each week. On weekends, if they felt like socializing they would ride into town and have dinner and drinks at the Lucky Nugget Restaurant and Lounge. The residents of the little community were extremely friendly but never intrusive, just how Mac liked it. Mac and Kate felt right at home with them. Once they found out Mac was an electrician, he became the “go to” guy for any electrical problems. He refused to take any money for his work. He always said the first time that he accepted money he wouldn’t be retired anymore. His pay became baked goods and other favors paid in return for his work. Everyone seemed to be ready to help one another with any little chore they couldn’t handle by themselves.
At the end of his first two years of retirement, Mac had hunted every nearby mountain and fished all of the local streams. Their dream cabin was in immaculate condition and, although, he didn’t like to admit it, Mac was getting a little bored. He was considering opening up an electrical shop just to keep busy. He was reluctant to do so, because he told himself, that when he retired it was time to do something else.
Mac woke one Saturday in August and decided to go into town and get the paint that he needed for his new shed. He told Kate to get up and get dressed, that he was going to take her out to breakfast before he stopped for the paint. Always ready to go somewhere, Kate sprang out of bed and got ready.
After breakfast, Mac and Kate were sitting in the café drinking coffee and reading the Mountain News, a weekly county wide newspaper. Kate said, “Look at this Mac, the Plumas County School District is looking for Bus Drivers. That would be a great job for you. You would only have to work a couple hours in the morning and a couple hours in the afternoon.” Mac thought about it and then decided that driving a bus load of noisy kids along these mountain roads was not his idea of fun. He put the idea on the back burner.
As they were entering the hardware store, Mike and Ellen Tucker were just leaving. Kate and Ellen had become good friends, but hadn’t seen each other for a couple of weeks. Because of the friendship between Kate and Ellen, Mac and Mike had become friends, as well. They often fished the mountain streams together.
Kate and Ellen had to get caught up on all of the news since they had last seen each other and were standing by the door getting caught up while Mac went over to the paint counter. He was back in a matter of minutes with his two gallons of paint. Ellen was an eighth grade teacher for the Plumas County School District. When Mac approached the two women, Kate said, “Mac, I was talking to Ellen about the ad in the Mountain News for bus drivers and she said the school district is desperate for drivers. You would only have to work four hours a day.” Ellen told Mac that it would be a real community service because if they couldn’t find enough drivers the parents are going to have to drive their own children to school. This would create a real hardship for the mothers who would have to drive the mountain roads in the winter. Mac was still not too enthused about driving a bus load of noisy kids. He told Ellen that he would give it some thought.
On the drive home Kate convinced Mac to go over to the school and talk to them about the job. Mac teasingly said, “What are you trying to do, Kate, get me out of the house.” Kate said, “Don’t be silly, I’m happy when you’re happy and you’re happiest when you are busy, that’s all.” Mac caved in and said, “Okay, I’ll go talk to them on Monday.”
Mac met with Bob Knox, the Transportation Supervisor, the following Monday and by Friday he had taken his driver’s test, was issued the appropriate license, and had driven his route several times and was ready for the first day of school.
Mac was assigned bus No. 29 and the first couple of days the transportation office sent someone with Mac to make sure that he got all of the stops correct. Everything ran smooth and Mac was becoming a popular driver among the kids. Mac took the time to get to know each child’s name and a little bit about them. Most days he had about 20 riders on his bus and it didn’t take him long to get to know them. The round trip took him about an hour and a half to make because of the distance between the houses in the mountains. The school that he drove for had grades seven through twelve.
As the weeks went by, Mac was enjoying the part time job and the friendly banter that went on between him and the kids. With the onset of Autumn and cooler weather, Mac started thinking about how bad the roads could get up here in the mountains during the winter months. He knew snow would drift over the roads in the passes and the roads in the mountains got mighty icy. He wasn’t looking forward to those months.
By Halloween Mac had made friends with most of the children on his route. He knew that Jimmy Butler was first string running back on the varsity team. Mac and Kate started spending their Friday nights at the High School football field watching their kids play. Jimmy was a quiet reserved young man. Then there was Molly Adkins, she was the Gadfly of the bus, never sitting in one seat over five minutes at a time. Terry and Jennifer Brown were seventh and eighth grade brother and sister. Billy Myers was a tenth grader with a penchant for picking on the younger kids and Brad Miller, also in the tenth grade, but, also the self professed nerd of the bus. Mac always had to keep a close eye on Billy. Mac liked all of the kids on his route and knew how to handle each one. He didn’t mind the occasional spitball to the back of the head or the loud noise. He didn’t even get to upset when he caught Billy Myers soaping the inside of the bus windows. He brought a razor blade and window cleaner the next day and made Billy clean the windows before he would leave the school. Kids will be kids, the next morning when Mac went to start the bus it was covered in toilet paper. Mac got a good laugh at that. He remembered what he did when he was their age. He passed out candy bars as the kids got off of the bus on Halloween and made them promise not to toilet paper his bus again. He pretended to not know who had pulled the prank on him.
Christmas time rolled around and Mac had learned all of the trouble spots along his route leaving him more time to talk with the kids. He was building a good rapport with the kids. He was looking forward to the holiday break though. The roads were getting worse after the snow started falling.
It was the third day back to school after the holiday break; the snow had been falling steadily for the past 24 hours. Mac got the kids to school almost an hour late as did most of the other drivers. The Transportation supervisor told the drivers to stay near their phones because school would probably dismiss early. At almost noon, Mac got the call, school was dismissing early. As he drove the five miles to the bus garage, Mac was getting worried about taking that big bus along some of those icy mountain roads.
As the children boarded the bus, excitement was in the air. They were excited about getting out of school early. Most of them were already making plans on going skiing. After they all got seated, Mac told them to keep the noise down because he didn’t want to be distracted while driving on the icy roads.
He tried to stay as calm as he could, for the children’s sake. He prepared himself for a long slow drive. He was extremely worried about the winding section of Bucks Lake Rd. that traversed above Dublin Jack Ravine. His thoughts went to the local lore about Jack O’Riley, the old Irishman from Dublin, Ireland that hit the mother lode in that ravine in 1870. Some said his ghost still roamed the area looking for more gold. Mac said a silent prayer to old Jack to guide him along the road above the ravine. The ravine carried the runoff from the mountains above it to the roaring Spanish Creek below. The creek would be flowing full and fast from the recent early thaw.
The kids did not heed Mac’s request for quiet until the bus slid sideways on the first icy curve. Billy Myers was acting his macho self and making fun of everyone for being scared of the icy roads. Mac warned him to be quiet and sit down. Even Molly Adkins, the bus chatterbox, was sitting quietly in her seat. The grade going up Bucks Lake Rd. was steep and the ice was making the going even slower. Several times, Mac wanted to pull over, but, that would mean that someone else would have to make the trip. He was determined to get these kids home safely.
Mac thought that if he kept one side of the bus riding in the snow on the berm he could get more traction. It worked for awhile until the bus started making ruts in the gravel along the side of the road. The bus inched its way up the steep grade until it finally topped out on the fairly lever section of road that meandered the precipice above Dublin Jack Ravine. Mac let out a sigh of relief when the bus crested that first steep grade. He was still keeping the bus under fifteen miles an hour. Every time he pumped the brake to slow down, the bus slid sideways. With white knuckles and sweat trickling down his forehead, Mac negotiated the curves along the ridge.
The bus was starting the winding descent down to the valley. The grade was just as steep going down as it was going up. Mac pumped the brakes to slow the bus, but it was like the bus had a mind of its own. Mac would get it out of one slide and it would go into a slide the other way. Mac could feel the terror easing into his mind. The children were starting to squeal every time the bus slid. Mac was concentrating, so hard on keeping the bus under control, that after awhile he couldn’t hear the kids any longer. Mac was trying to negotiate a switchback on a very steep section of road, when the bus finally went out of control. The bus was sliding toward the guardrail at the top of the drop off into the ravine and on into Spanish Creek.
The bus slid down the road and slammed into the guardrail. The guardrail immediately gave way under the force of the bus. The cables wrapped around the tires on the bus, causing the bus to teeter on the cliff above the ravine. The bus was slowly listing towards the cliff. Mac yelled for all of the kids to get on the left side of the bus. The action was not enough to balance the bus on its ledge. The bus slowly rolled to its side and started the slide down into the ravine. Mac was the only one with a seat belt on. All of the kids flew to the top of the bus, which was now upside down sliding the two hundred feet into the ravine. Mac wasn’t hurt too badly, just the pain from the belt on his waist. He was terrified to look back at the kids. Mac realized that the bus was sliding on its side. He was starting to be thankful that it wasn’t rolling over when the bus hit some rocks and started rolling down the cliff. Mac was unaware of the direction that they were heading, but, the bus was directed towards the steep cliff above Spanish Creek at the end of the ravine. Mac thought the seat belt was going to cut him in half. He wanted the bus to stop. He heard a lot of noise from inside the bus and he knew it was the kids screaming and rolling around the bus. He was silently sending up one line prayers for their safety between the thrashings that he was receiving. Finally the bus stopped rolling.
Mac looked back at the kids. They were strewn all over the bus. He couldn’t see any movement. Fear gripped his soul as he observed all of the limp bodies lying across the seats. He heard a few low moans coming from the back of the bus. Mac yelled, “Can anyone hear me?” Someone from the back answered, it was Brad Miller. Mac asked him if he could move. Brad was slow to respond, but, said that his arms and legs were moving. Mac told him to get to the back door if he could and open it. As Brad tried to make his way to the back door, Mac got his pocket knife out and cut his seatbelt. As he cut through the belt, he fell out of his seat and landed on his head. The movement from the two had caused the bus to roll out over the last drop off into Spanish Creek. Mac felt the bus roll as if it was moving in slow motion as it plummeted into the ravaging Spanish Creek. The bus smashed on the bottom of the Creek. The only portion of the bus sticking out of the water was the back ten feet. Mac heard the water rushing past the outside of the bus. The water began to find its way through the broken windows of the bus. Mac was panicking on the inside but remained calm on the exterior. He called for Brad again. Brad answered and said he was at the back door, but, it wouldn’t budge. Mac slowly made his way towards the back of the bus, carrying a few of the children with him. The front of the bus was filling up with the icy water fast. Mac knew that he had to get these kids out of the bus and the icy water as quick as he could.
He reached the back door, where Brad was still not having any success getting it open. Mac put his weight against the door and pushed. The door opened an inch or so. Mac realized that the door hinges were bent. He and Brad leaned against the door and pushed. After several attempts the door gave way enough for them to get out. Mac looked at Brad and asked him if he was okay. Brad nodded his head that he was. Mac asked him if he could swim. Still too terrified to talk, Brad just nodded again. Mac said we have to get all of the kids out of the water first, then, I’ll lift them out of the bus to you. Brad just nodded his understanding. They both headed down the aisle into the water to retrieve the children. Pulling all of the children out of the frigid water, they finally had them all propped against the last few seats of the bus. They were all coughing and choking on the icy water except for little Molly. Mac laid her on the back of one of the seats and immediately started CPR on her. After a few seconds, that seemed like hours to Mac, to his relief, Molly started spitting up ice water and breathing again.
Mac told Brad to squeeze through the open door and jump into the creek. Brad just looked at Mac. He was starting to cry. Mac reassured him that he could do it. He said, “I need your help, son, you can do it. Now go.” Brad turned and paused on the bumper of the bus. Mac yelled above the rush of the water, “Jump.” Brad leaped from the bumper into the raging current of Spanish Creek. Mac saw him go under and then he slowly emerged and got his footing and stood up. The water was chest high and it was all Brad could do to keep his balance. Mac started handing the smaller children out first. Brad slowly reached up for each one and carried them to the bank.
Jimmy Butler had a broken leg and a dislocated shoulder, but, he was doing his best to help Mac. He would have to wait until last, so Mac could help him out. He would be too heavy for Brad to manage alone. Billy Myers had a serious concussion and a nasty gash on his head. Mac wanted to get them out of the bus and the water before he checked their wounds. One by one he handed them to Brad until all that was left was Jimmy and Billy. Mac pulled each one out to the bumper of the bus and he slid into the Creek. By now the icy water had caused his legs to get so numb he could hardly control them. On wobbly legs he lifted first Billy on his shoulder and carried him to the bank of the creek and then went back for Jimmy. All of his kids were alive but hurt pretty bad.
Mac turned to Brad and said, “Good job, son.” Brad was shivering all over and his lips were turning blue, but, managed a half of a smile. In a sympathetic tone, Mac told Brad that he had one more job for him. He would have to scale the cliff back up to the road and get help. Brad said, “I can’t feel my hands.” Mac told him to put them in his armpits until he could feel his fingers and then get going up the cliff because the other kids wouldn’t last much longer in this cold. Brad turned and took off up the side of the cliff. Mac being a medic in the Army knew how to take care of the cuts and contusions, but, he didn’t have anything to do it with. He forced the kids to lie as close to each other as possible, for the warmth. He then started ripping clothes to use as bandages to stop the bleeding.
Mac sat with the shivering, moaning children for what seemed an eternity, when he heard someone yelling from above. It was the Plumas County Fire Dept. Rescue Squad. They were throwing ropes over the cliff and then two men started bringing a basket litter down. The sight of the Rescue Squad caused Mac’s temperature to rise a couple degrees. By the time the Rescue Squad had the last child up the cliff; Mac could no longer feel his legs. As the firemen helped him into the basket, Mac just collapsed and let the men haul him up the cliff.
Mac awoke in the hospital with Kate at his bedside. She smiled at him and said, “Well, how’s your new job going?” Mac just gave her a scowl and asked about the children. Kate was happy to report that Jimmy Butler was the most seriously hurt. Jimmy’s football career would be put on hold for awhile. The concussion that Billy Myers received had tempered his attitude, for now anyway. All the rest had bumps and bruises and some minor injuries, but, were going to be fine. Mac relaxed in the bed and said, “It was quite a ride.” Kate said, “You survived better than the bus did, it looks like someone beat every square inch of it with a sledge hammer.” Mac said, “I feel like I’ve been beat with a sledge hammer.” Mac lay quiet for several minutes before he looked up at Kate and with a lump in his throat told her that he was just glad it wasn’t worse than it was and that the kids would be alright.
Mac and Kate turned to see who had walked into the room. It was Bob Knox, the Transportation Supervisor. Mac said, “Hi, Bob, It looks like I’ll need another bus, that is, if I’m still a driver.” Bob smiled and said, “As far as I’m concerned you’re still a driver. The preliminary report by the Highway Patrol has cleared you. Have they been in to see you yet?” Kate responded, “He just woke up, they stopped in and said they would be back later.”
A month later, Mac was back behind the wheel of a new bus and making his route. As the kids got on the bus and saw Mac behind the wheel, they each hugged and thanked him for saving them. When Billy Myers got on the bus, he looked at Mac wearily and said, “Do they still allow you behind the wheel?” He then teasingly punched Mac in the shoulder and said, “Thanks for everything, Mac.” Mac jokingly told him. “Go sit down and behave yourself.” As the bus pulled up to Brad Miller’s stop the bus became quiet. As Brad got on the bus, the kids erupted into shouts and applause. Brad looked at Mac with a renewed bond between them. Brad made his way to his usual seat as the other kids patted him on the back and expressed their gratitude to the self proclaimed nerd. After the kids settled down, Billy Myers slid into the seat across the aisle from Brad. He looked over at Brad and said, “This doesn’t mean that I will stop teasing you.” Brad said, “Bring it on, Billy.” Billy smiled and gave him a poke on the shoulder. As Mac made his way along Bucks Lake Road above Dublin Jack Ravine, Billy broke into a nervous chorus of “As the wheels on the bus go round and round…” Everyone soon joined in. Mac shook his head and shivered a little as the bus made its way past the crash site and the singing slowed down until they made it past.
Mac drove Bus No. 29 for five more years before he retired for the second time in his life. He would miss each and every kid that had ridden with him, especially those that made the trip into Spanish Creek with him.