(I am not and have never been a member of the American Fork band. I write this as an ‘outsider’. I have read article upon article following this tragedy, and you will see in this piece that I have partially reconstructed the story according to my perceptions of the perceptions of the people in this story, which I cannot guarantee are the closest representation. Please know that the first-person accounts of this event within this piece are an artist’s interpretations. Then please, open your heart to my words as I have opened mine.)
On October 11, 2009, the 222 members of the American Fork High School marching band embarked on the bus journey home after winning a competition earlier that evening. Shattering the innocence of the clear calm night, one bus lost control and swerved off the road, crashed and rolled. 44 students sustained injuries. 33 year old Heather Christensen, assistant band director and woodwind instructor of the Utah school, did not survive…..
It will soon be the three-year anniversary of this tragedy and the heroics that fought in its wake. I am writing this because I think everyone should know what happened, so they too, can remember. It is so much more than a death. It’s a message.
There’s a reason I keep revisiting this story, keep watching the videos of the their shows, keep pulling up the archived news articles. For the longest time I could not figure out why I kept coming back. Why I couldn’t move on from the night I’d learned what happened. But now I know. It’s such a release to finally know.
I can’t help but be this story. Even years later, experience the reality of a tragedy as if it were my own. Be IN this story.
Sometimes, I become the story…………………………..
“We won the show tonight. We had known we were working it, even thought that we were good, and we swept every caption tonight to prove it. Boarding the buses remained a joyous occasion, sour skittles and chatter bounced between the seats, but the autumn evening had already darkened and the dark always quickly subdued us on bus rides. It was 30 minutes into the drive, and we’d settled into our seats, talking quietly, leaning against our neighbors.
The first lurching swerve confused us from our stupor. The next brought us to screams. Without knowing what was happening, without even comprehending what had begun to happen, we knew we were going to die.
They said the bus rolled. We ended up stopping with the bus at a different angle than when we had entered it. We ended with people screaming and sobbing and we ended with people taking each other’s hands and pulling each other from the sideways bus, bruised, cut, and in denial.
They told us that Heather had been the only one to die. And then they told us that she had died saving our lives. They told us before we even went to the hospital, as we stood outside the bus. It didn’t feel real yet. The entire day, from even before the accident, hadn’t felt real either. We held each other and sang church hymns until they took us away……”
“I aged 40 years watching something no band director should ever see, watching that bus, full of my kids, swerve off the road and crash. I want to forget what I saw. I never will. I don’t want to remember when the rescue workers came up to me and told me they had found a woman identified as Heather Christensen dead. I always will.
The kids on the bus told me that Heather had grabbed the wheel when the bus driver collapsed and steered the bus onto a safer path. Rescue workers later determined that she had managed to maneuver the bus between a rock pile and a viaduct, “threading the needle”, before the bus rolled and she was thrown into the stairwell and out of the bus. Because of her actions, no other deaths and no severe injuries occurred.
Heather died saving the kids she loved. And I can’t ever tell her how proud I am.”
‘…I didn’t know I was going to die. It was so fast. The bus had gone quiet. The kids were up talking softly. And then suddenly the bus was swerving. I didn’t hesitate. I was up in the front, I reached over the motionless driver, I grabbed the wheel. I couldn’t control it so well, and we had already gone off the road. But I hung on, I torqued it, around the obstacles…and there was a great jolt and the pain in my wrists told me I was no longer holding the wheel. There was nothing around me but whistles and cold air and dark. And I guess that in those last few moments on this side of the universe, I was flying…..’
I find that I am so ingrained in this story that I cannot escape playing all of its roles.
I am the students of American Fork who have lost a leader and a friend. Heather put so much passion into her teaching. She encouraged us to be excellent. She wouldn’t accept anything less than excellence from anyone, but she was never harsh, never anything but kind. When we were with her, we liked ourselves better. A night meant to end in the comfort of success and happiness becomes torn apart by reality too terrible to imagine. We’re empty and betrayed and hurt. We don’t understand, and we’re angry. But we’re not alone.
I am the band director of American Fork who has lost a colleague and a companion. Heather… so young and vibrant. She had so much to share, so much room to grow. And for her it was all a journey. That exciting journey of life, where obstacles were no more troubling than bowling pins, where you could leap across the canyon for the sake of enjoying the breeze. I see her passion in the smile of her eyes. American Fork was her alma mater, and her desire and passion to give back inspired me more than anything I’d ever known. Her departure from life so soon hits me square in the back and makes it so impossible for me to climb to my feet, though I have to. I am the leader, and I should always be the strongest. Everyone is looking to me for hope that I will fight to the end of my wits to keep with me.
I am Heather.
I know power, I know strength, I know beauty, friendship, and love. I have known, for as long as I have been part of band, from when I was a kid in marching band, galloping for my dots and working it out on the field and laughing long into the night, to growing older and turning to the other side, that there are things worth dying for, if you believe it so. That you can love something so much that you will lay down your life to ensure it lives on…………….
“In the face of the tragedy, I met with my staff and student leaders the following day. They were still sore. They were in pain. Fate betrayed the kids last night and stole from them the best leader and friend they could ever have had.
We all decided to go on with the season. Heather would have never wanted us to hold back.
In elegant defiance of all circumstances, we decided to compete in our next regularly scheduled competition, which took place three days following the crash.”
“Our show this year, entitled “The Greatest Generation”, is a tribute to the thousands and thousands who gave their lives during WWII to save others. It is an emotional show to begin with and its message of heroism, of fighting for what you love, became our driving force, our passion. We march now for Heather, who fought for us.
Throughout the season, we had worn dog tags bearing our deceased family members’ names, close to our beating hearts. A dog tag joins each chain, for Heather.
We pose in the endzone on the following Tuesday, tears splashing the red ribbons fixed to our uniforms. Never before have we felt such a drive to take the field in performance than we do now, in these few moments we have before we float over top the goal line.”
“At the end of the show, we have staged each guard member, dressed now only in white, to stand proud and distant on the yardlines, feet together, arms outstretched. The band exits the field quietly, lingeringly, gently leaving the crosses aloof in Arlington National Cemetery. Among the banners of WW2 icons used as props on the field is a banner bearing Heather’s picture, and another bearing a passage from scripture: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
One guard member kneels by Heather’s banner and lays down her scarf. It is the last thing I see that night before stinging tears close out all vision.”
American Fork, driven by their competitive success and emotional season, had been considering traveling to Indianapolis to compete in BOA Grand Nationals in November. Following their win at the BOA Western Regional on Saturday, Nov 7, 2009, they decided, against all odds, to start the fundraising process for a trip they would leave for the following Wednesday. In just two days, a vast outpouring of support from family, friends, and donors from around the country resulted in over 250 thousand dollars raised for the band to make the journey to Lucas Oil Stadium.
“If this were a normal life, this would still be a dream. But we are starting to believe it is real. Our director said that it is unheard of for a band to plan a trip to Indianapolis in two days.”
“This is the kind of miracle where you put aside your beliefs that life can never be this exciting, this epic, you leap onto the bus with your suitcase and your instrument, and you go. The kids live for this. I live for this. Heather is watching.”
“We float out onto that field for Semis and feel the love of the crowd flutter down to us from every part of the stadium. Even from the topmost boxes that are so far from the turf they might as well be heaven. Love for us, and especially for Heather. Because even though she never called out their names, or taught them how to have a funeral for a broken reed, or gathered them in a circle and told them she believed in them, they love her, too.
Every impact point in the show, we perform as passionately as we rehearsed; inside is the bittersweet pang that we are performing the show for the last time and that we will never perform the dance segment, or the woodwind ballad segment, or the leaving segment, ever again. This time, we don’t cry until we are off the field, inside the exit tunnel, and by the time we emerge up into the streetlight ground level again there is nothing left.
We are told that after a show is performed for the last time, it is dead. “The Greatest Generation” is about death, but in every part of us it will always live.”
“We set out on this journey so many months ago to make a difference. And the difference, now, is within us.”
I really do have the best view of the show now.’
And I fade out of American Fork’s story and into my own life.
I know I am right. I know it’s ok to feel this way, to feel as if I am linked to an organization and an activity, so linked that I can say that it is what I revolve around. Marching and music will always be the center of my crazy rainbow galaxy. I will orbit until the universe folds into itself and goes away. I attach myself to band and the concept of band because it is such a model for what life should really be.
Because when you join band, you are stepping into a story. The band was a story before you joined, and you are a new character in a new chapter. Every rotating box you march, every friendship you forge, every fear you conquer and every night you laugh are parts of the story. Your story. Your friends’ stories. M11, A4, and the center snare’s stories. Your band director’s story.
You always remember the moment when band became your haven. When you realized that you could escape your other life. That you could play make believe the rest of the world did not exist the moment whenever you touched your clarinet to your face or started jazz running like a tumbleweed. Band, where the next exciting event is never more than a week away. Where a best friend is no more than a two-step interval away.
Every day here is an adventure, if you wish it to be. And when you are content, you are always taking chances. You push yourself to get better, when you think you can’t, when you would have once thought you would never care. You turn to someone you haven’t turned to before and you babble as if you were the best of friends. You make them special to you, because it is such a simple thing to do. Sometimes making someone special to you is all it takes to save their life.
Not every escape is an illusion.
You’ve got to know, got to believe that band is real.
The story isn’t just a story, made up to hide you from a life that hurts you. It’s real life. In real life, you picked up a hunk of metal or a stick of wood or a drum or a flag and traversed the wild savannah of a football field in complicated little patterns. You marched in rain so thick you couldn’t have seen a giraffe six inches from your face. You were angry when you ran one set 47 times in a row, and you were angry when your school forgot you existed and cut your funding. You huddled under a blanket with so many people you care about while the game raged on and you smiled because you all managed to fit without tumbling like fat little penguins off the bleachers. In real life, you became part of something so much bigger than yourself, and you were happy to live in the moment.
In real life, you woke up with a purpose, to serve an organization that accepts you for who you really are.
For American Fork, and for any band that has lost a member of its tribe, it is so real the way the loss of one…the loss of two, can collapse a football field in its emptiness. How suddenly you grow older, sadder, and then miraculously, defiantly more willing to attach yourselves to those still around you…..
You can tell how real band is by how much you invest in it. It’s more than just your time, or your stress, or your physical effort. You can’t help but invest in the people you march with and the people who surround the organization. There’ll be friends that you meet that never leave your heart for the rest of your life, friends that’ll let you know every day how happy they are that you’re alive.
There’s something deeper.
You can’t help but invest in the moments that stab you in everything you think you are. Those tiny, fleeting moments where you realize how in sync you are with the people around you, the moments when, after months of struggle and impreciseness, everything locks together. When so much combined individual energy, energy from you, energy from everyone around you, combines, increases exponentially, and shines through you, the way a wave in the ocean lifts you up as it passes through you. And for a tiny forever in the mirror of time, you aren’t really just yourself anymore, not just yourself, you are a whole fragment of everyone else….
You hang around all season long, and you hang around so you can exist in the one moment that lets you feel what it is to never be alone.
When you invest, when you care, when you lean your life so heavily on a group of people, on a sensation, you’re bound to get hurt. Because life can move in such a series of mysterious and cruel events. You’ll find what you invested in has been ripped away. You’ll find that your scars bleed in the dark. And you’ve got to understand that loss isn’t rectified by turning away from everything that could hurt you if it was gone but in your ability to heal and grow closer to everything you love.
Band is so real for American Fork. And when I live their story, live the wild emotions of a band that shattered and put themselves back together again, that took a tragedy and turned it into a mission of strength and remembrance, I entertain the notion that the human race has begun to move just a little more in sync with itself.
American Fork, Heather Christensen, you have taught me this:
Loss comes true, but so does hope.