Rarely does anyone consider an auto accident to be a blessing. But a group of Union College singers who experienced a traumatic accident on the way back from a spring break trip to California experienced unexpected miracles both in accident itself and in the strangers who helped them afterward.
Dr. Ricky Little, Union’s choral director, took 10 students to California over spring break to sing for several churches. On the return trip, their van left Salt Lake City on March 12, making their way through Wyoming along Interstate 80. The road took them through an area known by truckers as the Three Sisters. This stretch of road is reputed to be particularly dangerous, especially when iced over. More than 120 18-wheel trucks drive through this pass in a day.
While Little was driving Union’s new Ford Transit passenger van eastward up a steep incline, an emergency vehicle quickly drove past them with siren blaring. Coming over the crest of the hill, Little saw an 18-wheeler had crashed on the other side of the road heading west, flattening the guard rail. He slowed down, moving to the left lane to give the emergency vehicles more room.
Moments later, the students felt an impact from the back of the van. Another semi truck had hit the back corner, causing the van to swerve out of control. “We’re not going to flip,” Dr. Little thought as he fought to regain control of the vehicle. Then the semi hit them again, harder this time.
The van landed on its side and spun 180 degrees and the semi didn’t make it much farther—swerving and hitting the mountain just on the edge of the road. A witness later reported they saw the truck come over the hill, but never slow down even after hitting the van the first time.
Little’s first concern was getting everyone out of the van. The windshield had cracked so he tried kicking it out. Thankfully, emergency workers were already close by. The back windows of the van were already blown out, so workers were able to pull out the luggage blocking the way, and the students were able to climb out that way.
Three students were transported to the hospital via ambulance, and the rest of the choir followed them to the hospital for a general check-up, making sure there were no serious injuries. One student had broken a rib and another had a concussion, but no one else was severely hurt.
A helping hand
After making sure everyone was okay, the next primary concern was to think of a way to get the students a place to stay for the night. The nearest car rental office was back in Salt Lake City. The sheriff who had been on site made some calls, and soon everything was taken care of. Craig Lester and Eugene Platt, leaders in the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints community, offered to house the group at the Prairie Inn in Evanston, Wyoming.
Lester and Platt, along with their wives, went to great lengths to care for the stranded Union students. In addition to providing rooms at the inn, Lester and Platt also made them dinner and breakfast every day. Platt, president of the LDS stake in Evanston, even drove out to the impound lot where the van was being held to retrieve the leftover luggage and license plate.
Modern safety features prevent injuries
The totalled van had been donated to Union College only a short time before. It was originally bought for an Adventist high school, but when they decided it didn’t fit their needs, it was given to the college. The new vehicle featured a large luggage storage area in the back and side airbags throughout the passenger area. According to Little, those airbags were likely what prevented major injures to the students when the van rolled on its side.
As of now, all of the students are back in classes and the injuries are healing. Little especially wanted to stress his gratefulness to the Mormon families who looked after them during their time of need. “We never had a chance to ask for anything,” he said. “They were always five steps ahead of us with a bunch of little kindnesses. I can’t thank them enough. They opened up their church, homes, and wallets to help us.”
By Elizabeth Bearden, student writer