Before the Los Angeles temple was dedicated in 1956, the Latter-day Saints of California traveled long distances to attend the temple. An earlier post described the first such temple excursion from Long Beach to the temple at Mesa, Arizona.
So many Saints were traveling so many miles for temple attendance in those days before everyone had the kind of private car to make that trip safely. To ease the burden, the Los Angeles Stake Genealogical Committee purchased a bus in February of 1933 specifically for temple trips. Most of their excursions were to the temple at Mesa, but in October 1933, 29 members of the stake rode all the way to Salt Lake City. By the time they returned home at the end of that trip – having attended the temples in Salt Lake, Logan, Manti and St. George – the bus had carried nearly 600 passengers, making it possible for members to perform 22,473 temple ordinances.
The usefulness of the temple bus continued into February 1934, when members of the Home Gardens Ward of Southgate, in the Los Angeles Stake, under the leadership of Bishop Morris R. Parry, made another excursion to Mesa. An additional 15 ward members drove in private cars, meeting ward members in Mesa for a four-day feast of temple worship.
By that time temple excursions had become almost routine and the members no longer traveled in convoy as they had done on the first excursion. The two-lane highway was paved the entire way, including a stretch near the tiny town of Aguila, Arizona, where a detour had been built to by-pass a section of the main highway that was being rebuilt. Amasa Wilcox Steed, the 23-year-old son of the Genealogical Committee president, A. Merlin Steed, was the driver on that particular trip. He made note of the detour on the way down so that he could watch for it on the return trip.
Besides the driver and 47-year-old Bishop Parry and his wife Mary Pearl, age 45, the passengers included Ivan Magnusson, who had just celebrated his 34th birthday and his wife Rebecca Magnusson, who had been born in the LDS colonies of Mexico; they brought all four of their small children with them, including 2-year-old Ralph. Also 2 years old was Rea LaVon Haws, who traveled with her mother Pearl.
Afton Riggs, age 30, was there – her husband had left for a mission to Nevada three weeks earlier, and she would show support for his mission by working just as hard while he was gone as he did. Elizabeth S. McArthur, age 50 (who served in both her stake Primary and her ward Sunday School), and Genevieve C. Scadlock, age 35, were traveling without their husbands, too, while the couples aboard included Eugene and Mabel Gowers, both in their late 30s. Altogether, there were 35 people, mostly women, aboard.
After the group completed their last temple session on February 23, everyone climbed aboard for the overnight trip home. The two Parrys and the six Magnussons found seats at the front of the bus near driver Steed. The Gowers, Sister Riggs, and Sister Haws, holding her sleeping daughter Rea, took seats at the back. Soon everyone had sorted themselves out and most fell asleep in the darkness as rain began to fall, first in sprinkles and later in a downpour.
Amasa Steed, despite his youth, was an experienced and careful driver. The rain made it hard to see far in the darkness, but he knew the route, including the detour he would have to take on the near side of Aguila, 35 miles (by the 1934 road; 20 miles today) west of Wickenburg, the first town of any size after the bus had left first Mesa and then Phoenix behind. As he approached Aguila not long after midnight, Steed watched for the torches that workmen routinely left burning as safety beacons near the large DETOUR signs blocking the highway and marking the detour. Finally he spotted flickering lights despite the rain on his windshield. There was the detour, he told himself.
But Steed was mistaken. The lights he saw were those of the town of Aguila still a mile away. He did not know that the warning torches, left burning as usual by workmen, had been extinguished by the rain. The first indication that he had missed the turnoff came when the bus crashed through wooden barriers. Steed applied his brakes, but they locked and the bus skidded. Momentum carried the bus forward even after the front wheels fell off the end of the pavement, but soon the left wheel plowed itself 18 inches deep into the mud. The bus twisted to the left, rolling onto its top, as the steering wheel snapped and the bus’s sides and top disintegrated and personal belongings were strewn over the dark landscape. The back of the bus was crushed as it smashed the edge of the pavement in its death roll.
The rain continued to fall as Bishop Parry and a few others crawled from the wreckage. They were bruised and cut and shaken, but not badly hurt overall. The farther back passengers had been seated, though, the worse they were injured. Those in the very back did not have a chance.
Still dazed from the accident and trying to make sense of the upside-down wreckage in the darkness, Bishop Parry rallied the least injured – his wife, and the Magnusson couple – who found long timbers at a nearby railroad maintenance shed. The two men and two women used that lumber as levers, prying the heavy bus up until more survivors could be dragged out.
Virtually everyone on the bus was injured, some critically. There was no shelter for them once they had been pulled from the wreckage. “There were so many so badly hurt,” Bishop Parry told reporters later in the day. “I went around telling them not to cry out because there were others suffering, too, so they just cried quietly to themselves.”
Once they had rescued as many as they could reach, Bishop Parry turned his attention to finding help. Just as Steed had done, he saw the lights of Aguila a mile down the road. Leaving his wounded flock he set out on a run, pushing himself as hard as he could, bloodied and caked with mud as he was, through the rain that continued to fall. As he got nearer to town he began to yell as loudly as he could in his winded condition. “I cried out for help,” he said, “and somebody came with a light.” It was several minutes before he could get out the words to explain what had happened.
Men from Aguila hurried to the scene to offer what help they could. W.J. Young, the Santa Fe railroad agent at Aguila, telegraphed to Wickenburg, which soon had every doctor in town on the road to the accident scene, along with trucks and automobiles to bring in the wounded. The hospitals at Phoenix and Mesa were put on alert – the tiny hospital at Wickenburg would not be able to do much more than treat those who were too seriously injured to be carried further. It took time, but as quickly as it could be managed, the bus passengers were brought into Wickenburg, and all had received some kind of treatment by 10:00 a.m.
For some, it was too late. Afton Riggs, the wife of the newly serving missionary, died inside the bus. Two-year-old Rea Haws, whose mother Pearl suffered both a broken arm and a broken leg, was still breathing when she was rescued, but died on the way to the hospital. Eugene Gowers survived, with injuries, but his wife Mabel did not. Altogether, six of the Saints lost their lives on the highway:
Sarah M.F. Crawford, 45
Mabel M.P. Gowers, 34
Elizabeth S. McArthur, 50
Afton L.L. Riggs, 30
Genevieve C. Scadlock, 35
Rea LaVon Haws, 2
As quickly as they could receive the barest amount of first aid, passengers were either released or sent on the road to Phoenix, to make room for those who needed more critical care at the Wickenburg hospital. Almost alone among the bus’s passengers, two-year-old Ralph Magnusson was completely uninjured. Unaware of the tragedy around him, he played happily on the hospital floor, dressed in his red sweater and blue overalls.
Bishop Parry spent much of the morning walking between the hospital and the town’s mortuary, ascertaining the condition of each of his ward members and notifying their families back home. Early in the afternoon, Bishop George D. Price of Phoenix reached Wickenburg and relieved Bishop Parry of some of his burden. Bishop Price arranged for transportation for the less seriously wounded back to Phoenix, and arranged for the transfer of the bodies of the dead first to Phoenix, and then back to their families in Southgate. Some, including Jesse Ellsworth (age unknown to me), were too seriously injured to be moved; they would remain at Wickenburg for days until they were stable enough to transport to Phoenix.
In the days that followed, a coroner’s inquest determined that the deaths followed “an accident uncontrollably caused, due to weather conditions.” Young Amasa Steed, injured in the crash with all the rest, was cleared of any carelessness or recklessness – there simply was no warning that the pavement would end when it did, once the torches had been extinguished by the rain.
Even before the survivors returned to Southgate, members of their ward rallied around bereaved family members. A special prayer service was held the day after the accident. Their Southgate neighbors, especially other churches, expressed sympathy to the ward for their losses. Typical was this letter from Clarence E. Miller, pastor of the First Methodist Church of Home Gardens:
We were very much shocked and deeply grieved to learn of the terrible accident which befell the dear members of your ward.
I, as pastor of the First M.C. Church of South Gate, wish to express for myself, as well as for the members and friends of my Church, our heartfelt sympathy to all who mourn and suffer as a result of this sad experience.
If there is anything we might be able to do in the way of practical aid, let us know.
May God bless you all and give you strength to bear up under this load of grief.
A week later, the temple presidency at Mesa held a memorial service, dedicating themselves, in the words of their memorial resolution, “to the principles and virtues that actuated, even unto – and beyond – death, the humble yet illustrious lives” of the six who had died.
Bertha A. Kleinman, a favorite LDS poet of the day whose style may not appeal to modern taste but whose phrases described the feelings and interpretations of 1934, read a new poem at the temple memorial service:
LIFE ENCROWNS THE DAWN
Death rode the night with speeding wings outspread,
An awesome cloud above the wind and rain,
Nor light, nor signal on the path of dread,
To warn his prey out on the lonely plain.
Six holy vessels crushed at one fell blow,
God’s priestesses laid low before their shrine,
Translated with their song upon their lips,
Their souls prepared to face the throne Divine.
A little child transfigured while it slept,
From out a mother’s arms to wing its way
Straight to the Father’s Garden over there,
Where baby buds are needed for the May.
Death rode the night to halt the pilgrimage,
To mar the loveliness of going home.
But over wreck and carnage and dismay
An Angel stands above the temple dome,
And through the trailing mists that cower down
He points the Morning Star above the gates,
Where loved ones throng to hail the victors home,
Where understanding waits and consecrates.
God sanctify the pain and falling tears,
God bind the stricken hearts that sorrow on,
Thy Will be done, Thy mighty Plan roll forth!
Death rode the night, but
LIFE ENCROWNS THE DAWN.