The final weeks of the 1976 school year were a numb blur for students at Yuba City High, as they grappled with shock and pain in the wake of a bus crash that killed 28 of their classmates and one teacher.
A charter school bus carrying 52 people on their way to a singing exchange at Miramonte High in Orinda rolled off an elevated offramp on Interstate 680 near Martinez and landed on its roof on May 21, 1976.
The National Transportation Safety Board later determined the probable cause of the accident was failure of the driver, who was unfamiliar with the bus, and a host of other factors, including failure of equipment, signage and ramp design.
Survivors of the crash, families of those who died, classmates and emergency personnel who responded to the scene will gather for the annual remembrance ceremony at the YCHS Choir Memorial Monument near Yuba City City Hall at 10 a.m. Saturday.
Though the 40th anniversary of the crash is just a few weeks away, the ceremony will remain the same as it always is, a somber memorial dedicated to remembering the people who were on the bus.
Turned away at the door
Vivian (Chlarson) Hoffart was supposed to be on the bus, but was turned away that morning by the teacher because she missed too many practices. Hoffart graduated mid-term but sporadically continued to attend her music classes.
"That morning I showed up for the trip with my backpack and the music director told me I didn't know the music and I could go home," Hoffart said.
Instead of taking that fateful ride, Hoffart cruised around town with a friend who she was teaching to drive, unaware of what happened at 10:55 a.m. as the bus took the Marina Vista offramp just south of the Benicia-Martinez Bridge. It wasn't until she pulled up to her sister's house that she heard the news, which was spreading through the community via reports on television.
"When we were getting out of the car, my sister came running out the door and she was crying, very emotionally distraught because she thought I was on the bus," Hoffart said.
The next few weeks were an emotional roller coaster. Many students felt anger as television crews shoved cameras in their faces and the community sank into a deep mourning — it was all very chaotic and confusing, she said.
"(Graduation) was a combination of very sorrowful and painful, but it was also triumphant because some of the students who were severely injured were able to attend," Hoffart said.
After graduation, when most classmates lose touch, those who attended Yuba City High remained closer than most.
"It had a great impact on all of us," she said. "The students on the bus ranged from freshmen to seniors, so it wasn't all the class of 1976."
Dealing with loss
An Air Force brat, Lori (Hudson) Puente moved to Yuba-Sutter from Bangor, Maine, in 1965 when her father became an SR-71 Blackbird pilot.
It was in Yuba City where she learned to grieve.
When she was 12, her father, James Webster Hudson, was killed in a T-38 crash at Beale Air Force Base on March 23, 1971.
In 1976, she was a senior at Yuba City High School when the bus went off the offramp in Martinez and killed 28 of her classmates. She knew many of the people who died that day, including several through their Beale connection and others who were close friends with her younger sister.
Puente took on a project to revive and restore a website (www.concordandtime.com) created by crash survivor Tom Randolph, who died from cancer in 2011, to remember the people involved — including Randolph's twin brother, Robert Randolph, who was killed — and provide information about the accident.
Puente now lives in Elk Grove but she visits her father's SR-71 colleagues whenever she comes back to Yuba City because it helps her heal.
"I look at them to see my dad, he would be 82 like they are," Puente said.
Through gatherings like the remembrance ceremony on Saturday, Puente hopes other people can feel the healing that she feels when she visits her father's friends. She is bringing several classmates with her Saturday who have not attended before.
"What I said to them was the families need to see you, they need to see all of us," Puente said.