March 24, 1972: In A Newsroom On The Day Of Deadly Nyack High School Bus Crash

In the days that followed March 24, there would be sad funerals, stories and commentary about the Nyack community and all Rockland coming together.

Working a desk at a daily newspaper is like being on a hospital obstetrics team. You help give birth every day, in this case to a new edition that brings information to the world. That means the gamut of emotions, from joy to sadness to the mundane, from hope to despair, from anger to applause.

     Forty years ago, on March 24, 1972, the then Journal-News had almost wrapped its Friday sheet at 53 Hudson Ave. in downtown Nyack. Overnight stories had been typeset, photographs engraved, and morning reporters were calling police for updates. Soon, the paper would go to bed and the weekend news push would begin with a new cycle. The city room had its usual hum.

    In a flash, as always happens at a newspaper, the rhythm accelerated. Suddenly, the ever-on police radio had channel after channel blaring frantic reports of a major accident on the West Shore Line tracks, a freight-only line at Gilchrest Road in Congers. Before even one sentence was finished, the police reporter was on the phone with Clarkstown, and photographers and reporters in house were scrambled. At first, no one seemed to know where Gilchrest was, and the big map in the city room had to be consulted.

     Quickly, reports came in that a bus bound for Nyack High School had been struck, slicing the vehicle in two and dragging part of it 1,000 feet along the rails. Students were dead and others injured. The city editor and the news slot chief (layout editor) began clearing pages and assigning rewrite people who took early phone reports, with constant updates and quickly typed them on manual machines.

     Upstairs in the composing room, new layout paste-up sheets were set with the March 24, 1972 datelines and The Journal-News slug line. What would quickly appear on those pages -- photos of the horrific disaster that killed five Nyack High boys and injured dozens, plus reportage and first-person accounts by Journal-News staff -- would write history and bring about significant changes in school bus construction, safety and driver training.

     Newspaper staff, accustomed to quick and deliberate work flow when the need arises, once again saw a replay of another Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The next big event in the Hudson Avenue newsroom would be Oct. 20, 1981, when the Brink’s robbery in Nanuet resulted in a guard killed and two Nyack police officers mowed down at a roadblock.

     In the days that followed March 24, there would be sad funerals, stories and commentary about the Nyack community and all Rockland coming together, and the trial of the driver, who was convicted of manslaughter but who served no jail time. After that there would be yearly reflections, one including an eerie note that early in the 20th century, on the same rail line in West Nyack, several Nyack High School students were struck and killed by a train at the Old Nyack Turnpike crossing.

     In the newsroom on March 24, the tears of that day, wiped away on sleeves as the fast pace of news gathering and presentation unfolded, would not be forgotten, even by emotion-hardened staff.

The writer is a retired 42-year Journal-News writer, editor and photographer who worked with his colleagues on March 24, 1972.

Carol-Lou Varano March 25, 2012 at 02:42 PM
I was working at a busy intersection on the other end of the county (with 2 schools & a pr-k). Word spread like wild fire. Instead of the normal rush & burly burly people slowed down use caution & where so much more courteous ... What I'l never forget is the looks / expressions as they passed; and the heart wrenching and I do wish people would drive like that every day sadness expressed from those that stopped on their way.
RUTH HESS March 25, 2012 at 03:39 PM
I will never forget that day. I was an assistant principal at Link School to Frank Gannon, Fire Chief at New City Fire Dept. He had the "alarm box" that notified him of fires and accidents. When that alarm sounded, he ran out of the school so fast. I will NEVER forget that tragic day. The gates were not at that particular crossing. NOW, of course, they are there. Thanks, Art, for a beautiful article. We miss your articles.
Arthur Henry Gunther III March 25, 2012 at 04:42 PM
Frank Gannon was one of those old-fashioned Rockland educators who believed schooling took place not only in a building. That is why he served as a volunteer firefighter. Tx. for comment on my articles. I continue to write at thecolumnrule.com and at any other outlet that will take me.
James F. Leiner March 25, 2012 at 06:27 PM
Wonderful story Art...thanks for the memories...I was working on a Line Crew with ORU on the day of the crash not far from Gilchrest Road. The crew stopped and we did what we could...Terrible day for so many fine folks from Valley Cottage. The day Nyack High School was silent
Arthur Henry Gunther III March 25, 2012 at 06:51 PM
Your Villager piece captured the emotion of that terrible tragedy, especially from the families so deeply affected. Best, Art


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