Laura (Huffaker) Loeher was the youngest survivor out of 20 school children and their bus driver, stranded in a makeshift school bus during a horrific blizzard in 1931.
FAIRLAND – Pain still crosses 94-year-old Laura (Huffaker) Loeher's face as she speaks about a tragic ordeal she survived decades ago as a child.
Laura, who has lived in Fairland since the age of 13, was the youngest survivor out of 20 school children and their bus driver, stranded in a makeshift school bus on March 26, 1931, in a horrific blizzard on the plains of southeastern Colorado. She and five of her siblings were among those caught in the devastating frigid cold fighting to survive.
“I remember all of it. It's something you do not forget,” Laura said.
For 33 hours the children, ages 7 to 14, fought for their lives after their Pleasant Hill School bus became stuck and stranded in an epic blizzard with temperatures falling 20 degrees or more below zero. The bus driver, Carl Miller, and five of the children, Robert Brown, Kenneth Johnson, Mary Miller (the bus driver’s daughter), Louise Stonebraker, and Arlo Untiedt, died in the tragically fateful storm.
“It was an old, old-fashioned bus. The bus driver had fixed it up good, they thought, and it was pretty good for out there,” Laura said. “We started for school that morning and mother tied a hood on me under my chin, and said, 'Now, it's going to be cold today, so you leave this on and keep warm.'”
That little extra measure of love and care that morning from her mother helped save Laura’s life later.
The Huffaker children got on the bus with the others and traveled the rest of the route just a few miles away to two side-by-side schoolhouses, one for upper grades and one for lower elementary grades. By many reports, the morning started out unusually warm, but soon turned ominously dangerous as the wind began to howl, temperatures dramatically dropped, low hanging clouds moved in and darkened the sky and blowing snow began to rage.
“The school teachers wanted to go home. They saw the weather coming and really didn't want to stay there and keep us kids,” she said.
When the bad weather approached the children and two teachers could have sheltered in place in the schoolhouses, but the students were put back on the bus and sent home. The bus driver is reported to have argued with the teachers over the decision before they left. The blizzard overtook them fast and furiously and all visibility was soon lost making it impossible to determine direction or locate any structures.
“We got out on the road and missed a turn. We were going to go to a nearby house but we got lost,” Laura said. “There was a house a half mile away but the bus stalled on us before we made it there and then the bus wouldn't start. Mom had six of us on there.”
Laura said as young as she was she doesn't remember being scared at first and believes her older sibling's care and mother's words before she left kept her calm and alive.
“My sister had me on her lap and held her arms around me to help keep me warm. All the skin came off of her fingers later from freezing of course. Her hands froze, but she never let go. I probably wasn't so scared because of my sister,” she said. “Some of the others just laid down and went to sleep and they were gone."
The bus driver left to find help and died along a fence in the blizzard.
“He decided he couldn't just sit there and wait. He said, 'I've got to go and try to find someone. He got out of the bus and he left and walked a little ways and my sister and another girl tried the same thing but they didn't get very far and turned around and came back,” Laura said. “He hung onto the fence, he was all cut up when they found him. He froze to death. He had tried his best and had kept walking and walking and he wasn't too far from my cousin's house.”
The cold was brutal without heat or proper shelter or anything much to burn for fire, and their lunch pails were frozen solid so they had no food to eat.
“They said, 'Don't sit still, don't sit still! Keep jumping, keep jumping, keep moving, because if you quit moving and shut your eyes, you'll go to sleep and that's the end,'” Laura said. “When you're young like that you just hope to get warm and try to get warm, and jump.”
“We were always active. My mother kept us active and she said that's what kept us all alive,” Laura said.
One by one five of the schoolchildren on the bus died as they were overcome by the freezing conditions.
“It was terrible. The first one was terrible because she just sat there and was gone” Laura said. “You knew everybody and had lived with them all your life, and knew them ever since you was little.”
Without telephones or any other means of communication, the children’s parents believed the students had sheltered in the schoolhouses with their teachers.
“They didn’t even look for us because they thought we were at school, and that’s the best thing that could have happened because if they’d have got out they’d have got lost too, and froze to death,” she said.
Some of the fathers and other men finally made it through the next day to the schoolhouses with extra food and discovered one of the teachers there alone. His car had become stuck just yards away from the school building as he attempted to return home and he had returned to the schoolhouse. The teacher told them the children and driver had left on the bus over a day ago.
The men began a desperate search and discovered the bus a day and a half after it had vanished into the blizzard. They found all of the children in the bus, those near death and those who had succumbed and perished in the brutal cold.
Laura describes being rescued.
“It was heaven,” Laura said. “They took us to my cousin's house and when we got there she was frying potatoes. We jumped in there with our fingers and started picking them out of that skillet and eating them. She put blankets down and we all laid down on the floor. My Dad came over and quite a few of the men and sat with us and bathed and rubbed and rubbed our feet and tried to keep us warm and took care of us.”
Once the storm began to subside the children were moved to a hospital in Lamar, Colorado for exposure and frostbite treatment and recovery.
“We stayed there I guess about two weeks. My sister and my friends kept saying, ‘Laura, Laura, ask if we can go home,’ because I was the youngest and they pushed everything on me,” she said with a laugh. “When we got home my mother had donuts made, and I remember getting up there and grabbing me a donut.”
She said she and her siblings all recovered quickly and her sister’s hands healed eventually but were scarred for life.
“She could use them and thank goodness she didn’t lose them,” Laura said.
Dealing with the physical issues was only a part of surviving such an awful ordeal, the psychological trauma was great as well.
“That’s what they said, ‘How come your family all made it instead of some of the others?’ My mother always said, ‘Well I don’t know, but they always kept active,’” Laura said. “Some of them blamed the teachers. I was so young, how would I know?”
The story of tragedy and survival soon spread across the nation and made headlines nationwide and worldwide. The media pursued and exploited their story and the children became celebrities and gained the attention of even the U.S. President Herbert Hoover.
Once the media frenzy subsided, going back to school was so very painful with empty places at her friend’s desks.
“I can’t remember too much about that because it was bad, it was just bad. Hard,” she said, sorrow clouding her face. “It was hard to go back. It was tough with the loss.”
Cold weather and snowstorms still cause Laura to recall the anguishing experience.
“It always brings back memories,” she said. “ It bothers me some to talk about it, but still it needs told.”
Laura said the event changed her forever but has made her grateful for her family and the community that cared for them after the storm.
“Everybody was trying to console those that had lost someone,” Laura said. “I appreciate everything that was done for me. I do every year. I don’t miss a year that it doesn’t pop in my mind when that date comes around. I think, ‘Oh my goodness this is the day of the bus tragedy.’”
A book chronicling the ordeal was eventually written in 2001 by Ariana Harner and Clark Secrest, titled ‘Children of the Storm.’
Although the story once gained public notoriety, Laura's granddaughter Bessie Hall also of Fairland, just recently learned more about her grandmother’s survival story.
“I would hear when we would be over at Grandma’s house there would be these whispers of a bus tragedy, and I would always kind of perk up and hope to hear more details, but it never came,” Hall said.
Hall discovered the 2001 book detailing the event that included interviews of each of the remaining survivors. Hall recently traveled through the area of the tragedy while on vacation discovering commemorative historical monuments on the site where the bus stalled and in the Holly Cemetery near the victims’ headstones – a mural and a museum near the site of the tragedy that occurred on a county road between Holly and Towner, Colorado.
“It was kind of a surreal thing for me, I couldn’t believe this was real,” Hall said. “I told my husband I want to go there and see this in person. I don’t think I expected to be as emotional as I was. When I saw the bus driver’s marker it smacked me straight in the heart. That’s the guy who tried to save my family and he died doing it.”
Hall said out of the terrible tragedy came some good in the end.
Many safety changes were made to buses after the Pleasant Hill School bus tragedy, telephones were installed in schools for better communication, additional measures were placed on school buses for added safety, and the disaster served as a catalyst toward painting all school buses yellow, starting in 1939, for greater visibility.
“It really woke up the state of Colorado and others of public transportation safety for children,” Hall said.
After her journey to Colorado and more insight of the unspeakable ordeal her grandmother survived, Hall said she has a new found appreciation and understanding of her grandmother’s strength in times of great adversity.
“I have seen how she handles herself in the wake of personal tragedy. We’ve had personal tragedies through the years as a family, and she and Grandpa were the rock. She did it in her own quiet way,” Hall said. “They banded together as a family then, just as we still do now.”
Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @MelindaStotts1.