CA Mission Banner

Guatemalan Bus Wreck Spares Lives of Two Mormon Missionaries
Many Others Killed

by Raymond B. Johnson

We two missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints sitting in the front two rows of a Guatemalan "chicken" bus survived the crash, more than ten others in the front of the bus died.

It was January 4, 1960, and I had been in the Central American Mission for approximately eleven months and was assigned to a small Indian village named Patzun, Guatemala. My senior companion was Elder Larry A. Richardson of Mesa, Arizona. The district president was Stanley Jackson with whom I was raised in Lakeside, Arizona. President Jackson was working with me while Elder Richardson worked with his companion, Elder William E. Stokes, in Chimaltenango.

President Jackson had been instructed by the mission president, Victor C. Hancock, to travel to the small village of Comalapa to determine if the time was right to send missionaries there and open this village for teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We got up early in the morning, said our prayers, ate our breakfast, and prepared to catch a bus to the village. All morning I had a very uneasy feeling, you might call it a premonition, about making this trip. Something kept telling me not to go. I was prompted by the spirit to tell President Jackson that we should cancel. However, I kept wrestling with the feelings, telling myself that I was only a junior companion, that Stanley Jackson was the district president, and, furthermore, the mission president had instructed us to go to the village.

We left the chapel, which was also our residence, and walked across the street to catch a bus. The feeling of foreboding did not leave me, but I said nothing to President Jackson. However, I did take my 35 millimeter camera which I had bought in Japan back into the chapel and left it. In case something happened, I did not want to lose that Pax camera. (I still have it.)

We waited for a while for a bus to arrive across the street from the chapel. None came so we walked out to the edge of town, sat down, and President Jackson was teaching me how to be a more effective missionary. Ours was a strange relationship. I was about three years older than he. Now he was my superior. He had developed into such a spiritual giant that it was not hard for me to accept his leadership.

Soon a bus came roaring up at a high rate of speed, slammed on his brakes, and came to a screeching halt. Now I really had an uneasy feeling. The bus was full but the ayudante (ticket seller and helper) told us to get aboard since he had fold down aisle seats. President Jackson climbed aboard, but I remained outside the bus urging him to wait for another bus. The driver and ayudante assured me there was plenty of room and told me to get aboard.

President Jackson was seated in a fold down aisle seat on the second row. I reluctantly got aboard and the ayudante folded down a seat for me on the first row directly behind and to the right of the driver. The ayudante had no seat but stood in the stair well of the door. The driver took off like a bat out of Hades. I think he fashioned himself a drag race driver. It also appeared he had been drinking. The ayudante appeared sober.

The bus quickly picked up speed and soon we were going about 70 miles per hour on the thin paved highway. As we approached a long curve in the road, the driver did not appear as though he was going to slow down. However, just as we got to the curve, he tried to apply his brakes to slow the bus. The brake pedal went all the way to the floor. The brakes had failed. The bus did not slow at all. He had obviously lost his brake fluid. Something had probably ruptured when he stopped so suddenly to get us aboard.

We negotiated this curve and started down hill into a canyon which reminded me of the Salt River Canyon in Arizona, a mini Grand Canyon if you please. The people on the bus, now aware of the danger, started screaming. There was panic everywhere. The bus driver tried to gear down into third gear in order to slow the bus. However, he was going too fast and was unable to get into third gear. He then tried to get it back into fourth gear but was even unable to do this. The transmission was now in neutral, we had no brakes, and were speeding down into a canyon with a winding road..

I reached forward and pulled on the emergency brake which was right beside the gear shift. Someone had obviously driven the bus with the emergency brake on and worn the brake pads down to the steel brake shoes. When I pulled on the emergency brake, it created a little drag but did not slow the speeding bus much. By this time we had negotiated a couple of curves in the road.

I instructed the ayudante to keep pulling on the emergency brake and I tried to get the transmission back into gear. I was standing between the driver and the ayudante. I pushed on the gas pedal with my left foot to race the engine in an attempt get it into gear. All I managed to do was grind the gears significantly. One could hear the grinding of the gears over the screams of the people. I could not even get it back into fourth, or high, gear.

Up to this point the driver had managed to steer the careening bus around all the curves we had encountered. However, he saw we were rapidly approaching a sharp curve and a cliff. I was stunned to see that he had completely turned loose of the wheel. He crossed himself, raised both hands in the air, and began to pray. I had a good speech I could have given him about, "faith without works is dead" . However, there was no time for that. The ayudante was still pulling on the emergency brake with all his strength. I grabbed hold of the abandoned steering wheel. I wanted to try and avoid going over the cliff on the right side of the road. On the left was a sheer wall. I thought by driving the bus into the wall at a 45 degree angle, we might be able to slow or stop the bus. I did managed to hit it at a 45 degree angle, but when the careening bus hit the wall, it ricocheted back across the road and plunged over the cliff. The last thing I remember was diving behind the driver's seat as we went over the cliff.

I do not know how long I was unconscious. It could not have been very long or I would have bled to death. When I regained consciousness, I opened my eyes and saw a huge gash on my left wrist. Each time my heart would beat, blood spurted out in a small gusher. I had cut an artery. I retrieved a large cowboy bandana I carried in my pocket and wrapped it around my wrist. It was immediately soaked with blood which helped keep it in place. I wrapped it tightly and the bleeding subsided.

I looked in front of me and saw the ayudante. He was dead. It was the most horrible sight I had seen since leaving Korea. He had been eviscerated. We were outside the cab of the bus. In fact the bus wreck looked more like an airliner crash than a bus wreck. The frame and wheels had split away and were lying in the wash. The coach was thrown up on the bank of the wash. It looked like someone had taken a sledge hammer and hammered it flat. There were seats, injured people, and dead bodies strewn about.

I yelled "Stanley, Stanley". President Jackson calmly answered "Yes Raymond". (We forgot the elder and president protocol). I looked behind me and saw him sitting next to a stump. I told him I could not move and asked him if he could. He tried to get up but was injured too badly. During the entire ordeal that followed, he kept losing and then regaining consciousness. I then discovered the reason I could not move was because there were several dead bodies on top of me.

I started kicking and thrashing around and was able to get out from under them. I stood up and assessed the situation. There were nine people who were killed outright and many more who were bleeding to death and had broken bones. Miraculously there were several people who had not been too badly injured.

I had been trained as a combat medic. Before my mission I had served as a Navy Hospital Corpsman attached to the U.S. Marine Corps and am a veteran of the Korean War. I began triage. I checked the bodies. Those I determined to be dead, I placed in one area (I do not remember doing this but Stanley Jackson insists I did). I began treating those who were injured the worst; however, the task was overwhelming. There were too many. I began to organize to try and save as many lives as we could. I instructed those who were ambulatory to use their clothing to stop the bleeding of those who were losing blood, artificial respiration for those alive but unable to breath. I instructed them not to worry about broken bones for the time being. While we were treating the injured, a man came to me crying and said, "Seņor, Seņor, please help me get my mother out. She is over here trapped". I went over with him to the rear section of the coach which was the only part of the bus that had not been torn apart. We were able to pull his mother out from between seats. She was about eighty years old, did not have a scratch on her, and walked away under her own power.

It was obvious that we were going to need help. I was desperately praying out loud for the Lord to send us help. I could see the automobiles going past on the road above us. We were at the bottom of the canyon and it appeared they could not see us.

I stopped and said to myself, "Remember the power of the priesthood." I then raised my right arm to the square and said something to the effect, "By the power of the Holy Melchizedek Priesthood which I hold, I command that help arrive." I had scarcely said the words than I looked up the side of mountain and saw a bus stop and people hurrying down towards us. With them was one of the young girl members of the Patzun Branch. She said to me, "Oh, hermana, estas herida!!!" (Oh, sister, you are hurt!!" The Cachiquel Indians did not speak correct Spanish) I then passed out. To some it may seem a co-incidence that the people came down the hill at that particular time. Not to me. To me it was divine assistance.

When I woke up again, I saw the pharmacist and his wife who had his business across the street from the chapel. She was holding my head in her lap, was crying, and kept repeating, "Oh los Mormoncitos, oh los pobre Mormoncitos" (poor little Mormons). The pharmacist, who also acted as the doctor and the dentist in the village, had a syringe with a 16 gauge needle and was getting ready to give me a shot of morphine. I expected the needle to hurt when he stuck it in me, but I did not feel a thing. I passed out again.(Several pairs of missionaries had attempted to teach the gospel to the pharmacist and his wife with negative results)

When I woke up again, they were putting us in the back of a flat bed truck to take us for medical treatment As it turned out, the road wound down to an area near where the bus had come to rest They were able to drive close to the scene of the accident to load us. (I did not know this until a recent conversation with Stanley Jackson). They had also placed the dead bodies on the same truck. Just as they were putting President Jackson and me into the truck, an American podiatrist from California and his wife drove up in a Volkswagen bug. They were on vacation and insisted on taking President Jackson and me in their vehicle.

I can remember the lady talking to me trying to keep me awake so I would not pass out again. I told her I was very tired and asked if I couldn't just go to sleep. The podiatrist, who is a doctor, said it would be all right for me to sleep. I passed out again.

When I woke up, I had no idea where I was or what had happened to me. I opened my eyes and saw a large fly on my nose. I swatted at the fly and hit myself in the nose with the cast they had put on my arm while I was unconscious. Up until then, I was somewhat groggy. That blow to the nose definitely woke me up.

I then looked up and saw an elderly, toothless lady dressed in black hovering over me. It scared me half to death. I thought I had died and gone to hell. I didn't know where I was or what had happened to me, but, for some reason, I did remember I was with Stanley Jackson. I screamed "Stanley, Stanley!!" He was lying nearby and again ever so calmly replied, "Yes Raymond." He then told me where we were and what had happened. I again lapsed into unconsciousness.

Elders Larry A. Richardson and William Stokes were walking in the streets of Chimaltenango when they observed a flatbed truck with numerous dead and injured people. They asked what had happened and were told about the bus wreck and the fact there were two Mormon missionaries in the accident who were taken from the scene by an American couple driving a Volkswagen bug. However, the people on the truck did not know where the two missionaries had been taken.

The Elders Richardson and Stokes then located Sister Jerez of the Chimaltenango Branch whose son had a taxi. The good sister made phone calls and determined that we were in the Catholic Hospital in Antigua which was about a half hours drive. Sister Jerez' son drove them to the hospital in his taxi. They entered the hospital which looked like a Catholic church but was originally built as a hospital. (Elders Wadsworth and Sumner both described the structure as a old Catholic church.) They had difficulty finding us.

When they did find us they discovered we were separated. I was on one end of a row of people and Stanley Jackson was on the other end with about twenty people between us. They discovered we were covered with blood, our heads swollen, and had injuries to the extent they could not tell which was Jackson and which was Johnson. We were both unconscious so were no help in the identification.

After identifying us they called the mission home and told them of the accident. President Hancock was in one of the southern republics of Central America. President Hancock had a bad heart so the counselor decided not to tell him and handled the matter himself.

Elders Richardson and Stokes stayed in Antigua until Elders Wadsworth and Sumner arrive with an ambulance and a Guatemalan doctor. John Wadsworth, first counselor to the mission president, and Elder Robert Smith Sumner had followed the ambulance in a mission car. In the ambulance was Doctor Rios of the Hospital Americano in Guatemala City which was run by the Baptist Church. They entered and were taken to the victims of the bus wreck. The majority of the persons inside were dead, many more than the nine Stanley Jackson and I believed. (Probably nine were killed at the time of the accident and many more died later.)

At that point they did not know whether Stanley Jackson and I were dead or alive so they started searching. They took the covers off the dead people and looked at them in an effort to locate us. After a few minutes they were directed to our location by Elders Richardson and Stokes.

They located me first. Dr. Rios checked me and told them he did not think I would live, suggesting that trying to save me would be a waste of time and effort. He suggested they look for the other missionary. They searched awhile longer and located Stanley Jackson. Dr. Rios examined him and stated he thought he could save his life and started working on him. At this point John Wadsworth felt prompted to go to me. He left Stanley's side and went over to where I was lying. He then placed his hands on my head and gave me a blessing that I would live. There were several Catholic nuns watching and listening to him. They had a strange look on their faces. (Was it disbelief?)

After Dr. Rios got Stanley Jackson ready to go, he came back to where I was, examined me again, stated that I might live long enough to get to the hospital. They discovered that I still had the gear shift knob from the bus clutched in my right hand. He then got me ready to go, and placed us both in the ambulance. John went in the ambulance with Dr. Rios and Bob Sumner followed in the mission car. Dr. Rios told John Wadsworth that if I lived, I would have severe brain damaged and spinal injuries to the extent that the quality of life would be very poor.

When they got us to the hospital, John Wadsworth gave me another blessing. This time he blessed me that I would recover and finish my mission in Central America. Dr. Rios then took me into the x-ray and operating room. After awhile he came back out, shook his head, and said he had just witnessed a miracle. In spite of all the external injuries on my body, the x-rays showed all I had was a broken wrist.

President Jackson stayed in the hospital for about a week. He had a bad gash on the right side of his head, numerous cuts and bruises, a broken finger, and a broken nose. I had to stay in the hospital for 18 days. My left leg was crushed very badly. The elders said my leg was swollen as big as the rest of my body; they had difficulty getting my trousers off.

The rest of my body felt like it had gone through a rock crusher. Every vertebra in my spine was so badly twisted that my back turned completely rigid. It was as stiff as a steel bar as were both of my legs. My left wrist was broken and was terribly scared. Dr. Rios wanted to do plastic surgery on it to make it look better. I declined. It really doesn't look that bad now.

I could hardly move my body at all. I could use my right arm but that was all. I could not roll over or move from side to side. They installed a devise for me to grasp with my right arm, but I could not budge my body. The nurses would come and turn me on my side every hour or so.

There was a faith promoting rumor going around the mission that my body had cuts all over it except where my garments covered my body. That was not true. I had numerous cuts and abrasions all over my body, including a significant cut right over the artery in my groin. The coin purse I had in my pocket was split almost in half by a piece of glass. There were bits of glass in the purse and some of the coins were bent from the force of the impact. Had the coin purse not been there to absorb the impact of the missile, another artery would have been cut and I would probably have died. We learned that another man who was also in the accident was in the Hospital Americano. His spinal cord was severed at the neck and he was paralyzed from the neck down. Dr. Rios told us he would soon die. President Jackson, who was more ambulatory than I, went to see him.

We were told that the driver of the bus had two broken legs. They took him to the hospital, put him in a full body cast, and then took him to jail and left him. He died several days later in the jail. Justice. We then knew at least ten people had died as a result of the accident. John Wadsworth recently told me he saw many more than ten dead in the hospital the day he was looking for us.

After I was released from the hospital, my leg was as stiff as a steel rod. My knee would not bend at all and was very painful. Dr. Rios released me on the stipulation that I work only half days in Guatemala City. I could walk stiff legged, but if my heel caught even the smallest pebble, the pain would send me into orbit. I had to stand on the buses since I could not sit down with a straight leg. This put me in a double dilemma because the Guatemalan buses were built for small people, not 6' 3" gringos. I must have been a comical sight, standing in a bus with a straight leg and a bent neck. It did not feel very funny though.

True to John Wadsworth's priesthood blessing, I did complete a successful mission in Central America. I was able to introduce and teach the gospel to many people who entered into the waters of baptism.

What did I learn from this experience? I learned to listen to the prompting of the spirit. It does not matter if you are just a lowly junior companion. It does not matter that the district president told you to do it. It doesn't even matter that the mission president told you to do it. If the feeling is that strong, don't be shy, open your mouth and tell someone. Who knows? Maybe they will listen to you and agree. I also learned first hand about the power of the priesthood. It is still with you, will protect you, and will heal you, even if you did previously ignore its prompting.

I have been able to determine that Comalapa was finally opened to missionary work. Elder Franz Velasquez from Quezaltenango during his 1985-87 mission was assigned to Zaragoza and traveled to Comalapa to do missionary work. There was a building there and a small branch but no missionaries. Elders T.K. Hollberg and Rojas were assigned right in Comalapa from April 97 to June 97 after replacing two sister missionaries . There were about 10 active members with two Melchizedek Priesthood holders there then. The branch president lived in Chimaltenango and came up to conduct meetings on Sundays. Apparently Comalapa has had missionaries assigned there off an on over the years but it has not been a very productive vineyard.