In rural places, an unofficial code of conduct dictates that when a crisis occurs, you do whatever humanly possible to help. It's precisely what residents of San Juan County did Sunday night upon learning about a horrific bus accident on Highway 163 near Mexican Hat that killed nine people and injured 20 others.
The initial reports of the accidents were hampered by spotty cell phone coverage in the Four Corners area. Because the bus had rolled multiple times, crash victims were scattered about the area. Passengers who were able, frantically opened luggage to find dry clothing to aid passengers with severe injuries, according to press accounts.
Once the accident was reported, first responders throughout the Four Corners area rushed to help, encountering snowy conditions themselves. Meanwhile, a clerk at the San Juan Inn distributed blankets and towels to the injured and a Blanding funeral director spent two hours at the scene assisting crash victims, according to the Arizona Republic Web site. There are doubtless many others whose names or titles we do not know who lent their assistance.
The first of the accident victims arrived at San Juan Hospital in Monticello (more than 70 miles from the crash site) some three hours after the accident. It was a profound test of the 25-bed facility and its small staff, which ordinarily sees five to six patients a day. There, patients were evaluated and prepared for transport to hospitals in Salt Lake City, Moab, Murray, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. Some 10 remained at the Monticello hospital on Monday.
Because of the remote nature of the area, the unreliable cell phone coverage and weather conditions, accident victims and their rescuers had many factors stacked against them. According to Deseret Morning News reports, poor weather conditions may have forced the bus to detour from its normal route. The 71-year-old driver was considered a part-time "stand-in" driver by the bus company, according to an Arizona Republic report.
An investigation is under way. There must be answers to what went wrong and how such a tragedy can be avoided in the future. Just as important, cell phone coverage in the remote Four Corners region must be improved. Minutes count in any emergency medical situation, let alone a mass casualty incident. But when the nearest hospital is more than an hour away, the ability to dispatch first responders takes on added urgency.
There are many issues to contemplate in the wake of this accident. For now, all we can offer is our condolences to the families of those killed in the crash, who ranged in age from 12 to 67. We extend our concern and hope to the survivors, including the bus driver. We express profound gratitude to the first responders, health care providers and civilians who gave their all under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.