More than 35 years after their deaths, the victims of the 1984 school bus crash near Essex have a new memorial, thanks to the efforts of Mike Shepard, Acutech Metal Works and the American Legion posts of Whitefish and Columbia Falls.
According to Shepard, the new memorial has been a long time coming.
“It got to the point where, between the road salt, the gravel and vandals, it was time to bring the old crosses down and replace them with something new,” he said. “It got to the point where, with the rust, we couldn’t grind the metal down enough to repaint it. This time, we decided to go with a powder coating, so we shouldn’t have that problem anymore.”
For more than 30 years, nine simple white metal crosses have stood on the site where on Jan. 21, 1984, a bus carrying the Whitefish wrestling team home from a meet in Browning collided head-on with a jackknifed fuel tanker on an icy Highway 2. The resulting explosion and fire claimed the lives of eight people on the first three rows of the bus, and the bus driver. Eighteen more were injured, but the remaining people on the bus were able to escape.
Among those killed were wrestling coach Jim Withrow; volunteer coach Wayde Davis, his wife, Jana, and their 3-year-old son Casey; bus driver Jim Byrd of Columbia Falls; cheerleaders Stefanie Daily, Kim Dowaliby and Tracy Maddux, and statistician Pamela Fredenberg.
Shepard, a former commander of both American Legion posts 108 in Whitefish and 72 in Columbia Falls, has been doing maintenance work on the crosses for a decade and said replacing the aging memorial has been something he had been thinking of doing for the past two years.
Shepard and his fellow Legionnaires maintain all of the cross-shaped fatality markers across the state of Montana, which usually only allow one cross for each fatality incident. Shepard said that he felt this site continued to need more than just one simple white cross.
“The state really wants the fatality memorials to only be one cross, but in this instance, I just don’t think it is right to only have one cross for nine victims,” he said. “It was an important event and I feel that everyone who lost their life should be remembered properly.”
Shepard’s original design idea of a metal heart with the nine crosses inside it was modified and then produced by Acutech and paid for by cooperation from the Whitefish and Columbia Falls American Legion Posts. Members of both posts, installed the memorial in its new location the Sunday before Memorial Day. The new memorial stands more than 30 feet back from the road and should not be damaged by highway traffic as it stands out starkly against the dark background of the surrounding area.
“I like to do those kind of things with my fellow veterans,” Shepard said about the project. “I said this was something I wanted to do, so I got it done.”