Whitefish, MT School Bus And Truck Collision, Jan 1984



Whitefish, Mont. (AP) -- Townspeople in this mountainous resort grieved Sunday for nine people who were killed when a school bus returning with the high school wrestling team crashed into a fuel tanker in a snowstorm.
"A little bit of all of us died yesterday," Mayor James Putnam said of the fiery crash Saturday night that also injured 19 people.
"The people of Whitefish are in shock. I'm sure that Jan. 21 will remain in the minds of Whitefish people for many, many years as one of the most tragic things that ever happened to us."
The bus, carrying about 30 wrestlers, coaches, cheerleaders and others from Whitefish High School, was returning from a losing match at Browning, 94 miles to the northeast. It collided with the empty fuel tanker truck on U.S. 2 and burst into flames.
It was the worst traffic accident in Montana history, said Al Goke, state highway traffic director, adding that the National Transportation Safety Board will investigate.
The injured included the driver of the truck, HAROLD BELCHER, 63, of Cut Bank, said Flathead County sheriff's spokesman Corky Derby. Only one person remained hospitalized Sunday, she said.
BELCHER said the truck "seemed to slip out from underneath me," and slid across the highway just before it was struck by the bus.
Ms. Derby said the dead included the bus driver. Identities of other victims were not being released until Monday because of problems locating relatives. But among those unaccounted for were wrestling coach JIM WITHROW and assistant coach WADE DAVIS, his wife and one of their two young children.
Many ministers in the town of 4,600 residents included prayers for the victims in their Sunday worship services.
The Rev. Kenneth Peterson of the First Presbyterian Church, one of 11 ministers and priests who rushed to the Whitefish hospital Saturday night to comfort families said "everybody in town is terribly shocked and sobered by it. It is time for prayer."
The Rev. Richard Kirchhoffer of the Episcopal Mission said, "The impact of this will not only be on the nine people who died, but on the whole community."
"The high school students who were brought into the hospital last night were beside themselves with grief. It's the first time most of those students have had to face death this closely," he said. "Whitefish will be a long time recovering."
The bus slammed into the double-tanker rig, which had jackknifed across the highway, at about 6:30 p.m. some 22 miles southeast of West Glacier.
Many of the injured stumbled into a bar and cafe about a quarter of a mile away to wait for ambulances.
Bar and cafe owner Clint Catheart said that when he arrived at the accident scene,
"There was just a ball of fire with the outline of the bus in it."
"The kids tried to look after each other," Catheart said. "We had one boy stretched out on the pool table and another on the bar until help arrived."
High school vice principal Robert Lawson said there had been little time to think about memorial services for the victims.
"With only about 500 kids in the high school in a close-knit community like ours, this is a far-reaching tragedy," he said. "But we'll bounce back, survive and maybe be better for this."
In another traffic accident Sunday morning, a bus carrying the Western Montana College basketball team from Dillon crashed head-on with a truck near Silver Star, about 170 miles southeast of Whitefish. The truck driver was killed and the bus driver was injured, but the players and coaches received only bruises and cuts.

Gettysburg Times Pennsylvania 1984-01-23



Whitefish, Mont. -- The victims of a fiery collision of a school bus and a fuel tanker truck during the weekend were identified Monday as two high school coaches, a 2-year-old boy, the bus driver, three cheerleaders and two other women.
All of the dead passengers were in the first three rows of the bus, which was returning from a wrestling match Saturday evening when it slammed into the empty rear trailer of the jackknifed truck in a snowstorm, said Flathead County Sheriff-Coroner Chuck Rhodes.
The bus was quickly engulfed in flames, witnesses said. Rhodes said all nine victims were burned beyond recognition, but the exact causes of death had yet to be determined by a Missoula pathologist.
Nineteen people were injured, including tanker driver HAROLD BELCHER, 63, of Cut Bank. One teen-age girl remained hospitalized Monday after surgery.
A memorial service for those killed in the crash, called the worst traffic accident in Montana history by the Highway Patrol, will be conducted Wednesday in the gymnasium of Whitefish High School.
The victims were identified Monday as Whitefish High head wrestling coach JIM WITHROW, 33; bus driver JIM BYRD, 35; assistant coach WAYDE DAVIS, 25; his 24-year-old wife, JANA, and their 2-year-old son CASEY; team statistician PAMELA FREDENBERG, 17, and cheerleaders KIM DOWALIHY, 16; TRACIE MADDUX, 16, and STEFANIE DAILY, 16.

Galveston Daily News Texas 1984-01-24


They will be remembered at

They will be remembered at our 30th reunion, 2015.

I was the News Director at

I was the News Director at KGEZ Radio in Kalispell during that period. That was one of the most powerful events of my life covering that story. I had to record some of my newscasts because I kept crying when trying to read the copy. Even now I get emotional when I think about it.

Thank you for making such

Thank you for making such information available. I personally remember when this accident occured but was only in grade school at the time. Such a sad day.