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Survivors still mourn 9 killed in 1984 bus crash
WHITEFISH, Mont. (AP) - In back of the yellow, Blue Bird school bus, members of the Whitefish High School wrestling squad lay sprawled across the vinyl bench seats, their legs slack and spent, dangling in the aisle as they dozed or chatted idly, cobbling together last-minute Saturday night plans.
It was Jan. 21, 1984, and the Bulldogs were returning from an afternoon dual in Browning. Driving through the winter darkness, bus driver Jim Byrd, a well-known Columbia Falls resident with 59 nieces and nephews, negotiated the narrow, snow-choked corridor of U.S. Highway 2, a two-lane, 94-mile stretch of winding road between Browning and Whitefish that tracks along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, skirts the southern border of Glacier National Park and, at its zenith, tops out on the Continental Divide and Marias Pass, at an elevation of 5,216 feet.
It was around 6:30 p.m. and the bus was 20 miles east of West Glacier, homeward bound.
A blizzard had been steadily spitting flakes throughout the day, covering the valley in a slippery vale of winter white. Before departing from Browning, the team stopped at Teeple’s IGA grocery store for snacks and to discuss the possibility of spending the night or waiting out the storm. Crossing Marias Pass would be dicey, but probably passable, they reasoned; everyone was eager to return home and sleep in their own beds.
“We were nervous about the roads. We knew when we left that it would be tense, but it was a collective choice we made to go home. It was a team decision,” recalls Steve Osborne, a junior at the time. “Being high school kids, you don’t stress about it too much. You just sit back and start yakking.”
Back in Whitefish, the annual Winter Carnival was underway and the festive royal coronation was slated for that evening. The Whitefish High School basketball team was playing a home game against Deer Lodge.
At the front of the bus, members of the cheerleading squad gossiped while two girls hatched tentative plans to see a movie when the team returned to town; “Hot Dog . The Movie,” the iconic ‘80s ski comedy, had just been released.
The upper-classmen had taken over the back of the bus, and Scott Norby, a junior, 165-pound heavyweight seated in one of the last rows, figured he and some friends might hang out downtown that night, maybe go for a drive.
“We were all just doing what kids do. We were in the back and everyone had their own seat. I was taking up a whole bench seat, sitting with my back against the window with my feet hanging out into the aisle,” Norby recalled. “We were telling jokes and screwing around. Everyone was asking each other what they were going to do when they got back to Whitefish. ‘Are you going home or are we going to cruise around?’ It was Saturday night.”
The smallest member of the Whitefish High School wrestling team, freshman Travis Brousseau, who was competing at 98 pounds, was seated up front in the third row, just behind the coaches and the cheerleaders. He and teammate Brent Halverson were listening to the song, “Bang Your Head,” by Quiet Riot, on Brousseau’s Astraltune, the bulky, pre-Walkman portable cassette player.
Up front sat Head Coach Jim Withrow and Assistant Coach Wayde Davis, as well as Davis’ wife, Jana, his 3-year-old son, Casey, and his 5-year-old daughter, Brieanne. The young family frequently accompanied Davis to out-of-town meets, and while Casey sat nestled on his mother’s lap, Brieanne eventually grew restless and scrambled to a seat a few rows back, joining 17-year-old cheerleader Lisa Slaybaugh. Ahead sat Stefanie Daily and Pam Fredenberg, the top candidate for school valedictorian, and a clutch of other young cheerleaders.
The capricious seat change, a youthful whim, would save the young Davis girl’s life.
Early that morning, Withrow had awoken in the basement of the home he and his wife, Emily, were building just outside of Whitefish. They were living in the basement temporarily, until they finished construction, and their son, 14-month-old Ian, was slumbering peacefully in the cramped quarters.
It was two weeks before the couple’s second wedding anniversary.
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