As a social studies teacher at Donna High School, Juan Carmona believes it is important he talk to his students about local events that don’t make it into the history books. The 1989 Alton school bus accident that killed 21 school children is among them.
Carmona remembers hearing the devastating news as a student in Spanish class. Immediately, memories of an incident he witnessed as a child came rushing back. “I was walking home from school and a bus passed my cousin and me,” Carmona recalled. “The emergency door exit opened and a boy flew out. He landed in front of us, cracked his head open and died in front of us. Ever since then my ears perk up when I hear about school bus accidents.”
Carmona believes Alton’s tragic event was so impactful, it should be talked about locally and nationally. It actually motivated him to write a book which he hopes will instigate conversation and keep the memories of the victims alive.
“I’m writing this book because I don’t want the victims and what happened to them to be forgotten,” Carmona said. “It seems like that’s what has happened over the years. I feel as if their story has been swept under the rug.”
Even when the accident happened, Carmona felt the story didn’t get the attention it deserved. “I would have loved to have seen state officials from Austin personally visit the area and pay their respects to the parents of the children who died,” Carmona said. “Although they were from a small town, these families lost a loved one. At least one family that I’m aware of lost two children.”
He said it’s time the story be captured in writing. “I’m a historian and I see a really good story that the nation should know about,” Carmona said. “This accident was multi-layered meaning so much happened as a result. There were investigations, lawsuits, court cases, barratry trials and infighting within the largest and oldest Hispanic organization. There was even discussion of dissolving the organization. In my opinion, there is a complex and diverse story here to tell.”
Carmona said the accident also resulted in bus safety changes. “These safety measures now in place are because people died,” Carmona said. “Safety measures aren’t taken just because someone decided one day to implement them. They got done because people died. In this case, 21 children lost their lives.”
The social studies teacher said writing about the accident has always been in the back of his mind. Years ago, he attempted to do some research but social media did not exit at the time and information was difficult to get. “We interviewed a couple of people including a judge who performed the role of a coroner at the accident site,” Carmona said. “But we couldn’t gather any more information so we stopped.”
Last year that changed when Carmona heard from his cousin seeking his help on a documentary he was working on about the accident. “I was excited,” Carmona said. “I was like ‘I’ll help you with your documentary but I want to write a book on this as well’. He was fine with it. He’s allowing me to use his information and providing me access to people he’s lined up for interviews. I’ve also talked to some people including three survivors, a parent of a survivor, a witness and a television reporter who covered the story.
Carmona hopes to complete his book either this summer or next. He is confident his connections with small press will help him get the book published and on book shelves. “I think there’s a really good chance it will get picked up,” Carmona said. “I think people will be excited about it. They’ll want to read how it all played out.”