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Tragedy at Escalante

On June 10, 1963, a group of explorer scouts and their adult leaders from Provo and the Salt Lake City area were headed for an outing to Hole-in-the-Rock, Kane County, Utah. They had loaded their camping gear into a large open bed truck. Most of the scouts and many adults were riding on top of their equipment. The last 63 miles of this journey would be traveled on a winding dirt road through some of the most scenic country in Utah. Starting up a steep grade, the driver attempted to shift from second to first gear. The transmission of the 1962 International failed to mesh and the driver revved the engine attempting to mesh the gears. The truck began rolling backwards. The driver applied the brakes; however, the brakes failed to hold. The truck rolled backwards 154 feet and then ran off the road and down a 30 foot drop off. The truck rolled onto its top, crushing many scouts and leaders.

Tom Heal, 15, and Brian Roundy, 14, were two of the less seriously injured scouts. They walked from the accident scene toward Escalante. After covering a distance of approximately two miles, they came upon Clynn Haws, a rancher from Escalante, who was repairing fences. He immediately summoned help.

Garfield County Sheriff George Middleton was first on the scene of the accident. Kane County Sheriff Leonard Johnson was in Kanab when he first learned of the accident. He drove the 175 miles to assist at the scene. Trooper Paul Blackburn also drove over 100 miles to arrive at the scene of this tragedy. When he arrived he found Trooper Dean Pierson loading injured scouts into his patrol car. Trooper Steve Brown was responding to the scene with Wayne county Sheriff Earl Brown. When they arrived in Escalante, Trooper Blackburn advised them to stay there, to assist with the injured which were being transported to that location. Trooper Otho Bulkley responded to the Panguitch Hospital where most of the injured were being transported by pickup trucks and station wagons. The Panguitch Hospital had a capacity of only 10 patients. During the next several hours 34 of the injured were treated at this facility. Seven explorer scouts and five adults had been killed. One more scout died a few days later. The accident investigation was turned over to the Utah Highway Patrol and Trooper Paul Blackburn served as the investigating officer.

The driver of the large truck was Ernest Ahlborn. Trooper Otho Bulkley met with Ernest and talked with him for several hours at the Panguitch Hospital. A witness to this conversation, Nina H. Steele, wrote the following to Colonel Lyle Hyatt. “I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the highway patrolmen who assisted during the recent accident in this area with which 13 individuals lost their lives.” She continued, “I had the opportunity to observe how the highway patrolmen handled this situation because I spent considerable time with Ernest Ahlborn. I stayed with him until his mother arrived. Truly I have never seen such perfect efficient work, combined with human kindness and consideration. They were a wonderful group of men, but I believe I would like to single out Otho Bulkley to give special praise. I am sure he had spent a sleepless night and had been subjected to some trying experiences during that time. However, as I sat and listened to him talk to this young man, who was completely stunned, bewildered, and grief-stricken, I thought a man could not have shown more interest or done a better job if he were talking to his own son. He gave such good advice, many words of wisdom and consolation without placing the blame for the accident anywhere.”

Lieutenant Paul M. Christenson, in charge of the Richfield office, later reported that Sergeant Julian Fox and St. George mechanic Harry Lundin, discovered that the brake master cylinder was almost completely empty. Furthermore, there were no leaks found in the hydraulic brake system. It appeared the truck simply had not been properly serviced prior to the trip. The accident cause was labeled mechanical, rather than driver error.