Palm Springs, CA Bus Plunges Over Embankment, Aug 1991


Several California newspapers reported Thursday that AMBER HICKS from Syracuse was among the victims of a Girl Scout excursion that ended in a fiery bus crash Wednesday in Palm Springs, Calif.
MILTON HICKS knew better. The Allen Street resident spent much of Thursday near the telephone, waiting to comfort a faraway daughter whose last-minute change of plans may have saved her life.
"I feel very relieved, very fortunate, that she wasn't on that bus," said HICKS, a health professor at Onondaga Community College.
AMBER, 17, a soon-to-be-senior at Nottingham High School and the eldest of his two children, was among a group of 127 Girl Scouts and their chaperones from across the United States and Finland who left July 20 to take part in a special tour of California.
On Wednesday, that tour became a national tragedy. A bus carrying 61 of the tourists -- including most of the Girl Scouts -- veered off a slick, curving road in Palm Springs.
Seven people -- the bus driver, two adult chaperones and four scouts -- died in the crash, and hospitals were treating 31 people, including eight in critical condition, seven in serious condition and the rest in stable to good condition.
AMBER HICKS wasn't hurt. She decided to ride with a friend, who uses a wheelchair, in a van for the disabled that trailed behind the main bus.
MILTON HICKS said AMBER watched as the bus skidded over a boulder-strewn incline, tumbling into a series of violent crashes that killed four teen-agers, including HICKS' roommate on the tour and an adult counselor who had been AMBER'S chaperone.
AMBER called home Thursday to report that several area newspapers were listing her among the injured. Instead, the Allen Street teen-ager helped in the rescue effort, MILTON HICKS said.
With other uninjured members of the group, AMBER spent Thursday in counseling to help the scouts deal with what they saw.
HICKS learned about the crash through a phone call Wednesday from his daughter, and only afterward heard it reported on the national news. He said AMBER seemed to be holding up well emotionally.
But he said the family is still deciding whether she should return home immediately or proceed with her earlier plans to visit relatives in California.
HICKS said his daughter qualified for the tour by passing through a series of applications and interviews.
"It was an opportunity for high school girls to see California," said PAT ROUNTREE, director of the Central New York Girl Scout Council.
She said AMBER is working toward a Gold Award, the highest honor in Girl Scouts, which recognizes leadership skills and community service.
"How they're selected (for the trip) was based on their maturity, on their ability to handle that kind of thing," she said.
The trip, ROUNTREE said, was supposed to provide a memorable highlight for AMBER'S teen-age years.
Had she ridden on the bus that crashed, HICKS said his daughter probably would have sat near her roommate and chaperone, who were killed in the crash.
"It's the absolute worst, it's the absolute saddest thing that could happen," said Palm Springs Mayor SONNY BONO, who helped carry stretchers from Wednesday's wreck.
The yellow school bus flipped as many as 10 times, said police Sgt. RON STARRS. It ended up about 25 yards from the road, its nose smashed against a huge boulder. The front end was splintered, the driver's seat exposed.
"The ones who could walk were quietly consoling each other at the top of the hill," said DR. DANIEL COSGROVE, one of the first on the scene.
Cellular phones on the bus may have prevented greater loss of life by enabling people to call for help quickly.
HICKS said his daughter told him one of the adults in the van for the disabled made the initial contact with emergency crews.
It had been raining off and on throughout the day in Palm Springs, about 100 miles east of Los Angeles, but STARRS said the road apparently was dry at the time of the afternoon crash.
"We're still leaning towards faulty brakes that caused the bus to .. fail to make the turn," STARRS said.
A team from the National Transportation Safety Board was sent to investigate.
The bus was chartered from Mayflower Contract Services Inc., the California Highway Patrol said. The company is based in Overland Park, Kan.
Mayflower Executive Vice President KYLE MARTIN declined to release any information about the 2-year-old bus' maintenance history, but said the company was in compliance with government regulations. He said it had a capacity of 71 plus the driver.
The dead driver was identified as RICHARD A. GONZALES, 23, of Bloomington, Calif.
The coroner's office identified the other dead as chaperone LAUREL McDANIEL, 30, of Norcross, Ga.; scouts VICKI POWELL, 15, of Fairburn, Ga.; ZOE JACKSON, 15, of Sangerville, Maine; and TAMMY MURRAY, 15, of Detroit; and DONETA SCHAEFFER of Davenport, Iowa. It was not immediately clear if SCHAEFFER was a scout or a chaperone. The name of the other victim was not released.
The girls who were not hurt spent the night in Palm Springs, said JOVANNA WOODEN, Spanish Trails Coouncil executive director.
"We felt that to traumatise them further by putting them back on busses was not in their best interests," WOODEN said.

Post Standard Syracuse New York 1991-08-02