This was my second summer of driving tour buses and giving the tour from the driver's seat, to cruise ship passengers who were visiting Ketchikan Alaska for a few hours. By this time I was well used to the routine and enjoyed telling corny pun-filled jokes, showing off the local totem poles, teasing Texans about their diminutive state, and answering dumb questions. When some lady (sorry, but it was always a lady) asked me how high above sea level Ketchikan was, as we drove along the inside passage, I would always look out the window and make a snap judgement according to the current tide: "Looks like about 25 feet right now."
The company used converted school buses for the tours, but had two used metro buses from some city 'down south', probably Seattle. As a 25 year old Cheechako (Alaska outsider) I was honored to be one of the two guys assigned to drive one of these bigger and much nicer looking buses. The other guy was a city councilman at the time and was famous for his loud and profuse
At times, that bus was like a sports car in my hands. One time I was shuttling across town empty and I went up the Water Street trestle. Ketchikan's homes are built into the steep hillsides that run along the shoreline of the inside passage on one of the big islands of Alaska's panhandle (The island, Revillagigedo, is about the size of Rhode Island!). Water street runs along the hillside, ever rising to the upper levels, but most of the 'street' is actually built on pilings, more like a bridge with one long side anchored to the rocky slope, and the other supported by a wooden framework. Anyway, as I came down the other side on narrow 2nd Ave there was a guy standing by the trunk of his car and the driver's door was wide open. I made a quick calculation of the bus's girth and sped right through the space still allotted. In my mirror I noticed that the guy seemed to be expressing his lack of confidence in my measuring abilities. "No sir. I am sure I had a little more than the one inch to spare that you are suggesting."
In 1984, my second summer as a tour guide, a new Alaskan adventure was introduced to our visitors. Beside the regular tour through town, and a visit to Totem Bight where a large collection of authentic totem poles is displayed outside, some folks could choose to go inland a way and canoe around on a big man made lake. My job was to get them up the old dirt logging road where they would get in 30 foot canoes and paddle together across the lake. Some dead trees were still standing on the bottom of the flooded valley and the canoes had to skim through among their gray upper branches. Beyond, the mostly elderly folks then disembarked for a fancy buffet of smoked salmon, herring, caviar and champagne. On the way back, the boats were usually goaded into racing against each other.
I went along once in a while, but sometimes I stayed behind and paddled around in the kayak that was tied up by the makeshift dock. One time there was a loud rustling in the thick brush not 15 feet from where I was gliding along the shoreline. All of a sudden a curious bear poked his head up to see if I was a lost salmon. He was not a lost mermaid, so we just looked at each other for a minute, both disappointed, and went on about our business.
As 54 worn out tourists got back on my bus and I drove back out to the road, I yielded as an opportune tour -guide moment presented itself in the form of a logging truck with a full load of giant spruce trees just driving by. "And approaching from the right, ladies and gentlemen, is a logging truck, heading down from the forest". I pulled in behind the lumbering load and waxed eloquent about the diameters of the 5 or 6 trees that filled the truck, and probably segued into a lecture about the spruce, hemlock and cedar that filled these woods etc etc. Nobody was listening. Too much champagne maybe.
The windy road was slick, as usual. Ketchikan gets about 150 inches of rain per year. October's average is over 20 inches, and even though August is near the low end of the monthly averages, about 9 inches are expected to fall. They say you can tell that it's going to rain in Ketchikan, if it is presently not raining. So the road was wet, and as I followed the logging truck around a right hand curve I saw that another truck was coming toward us, this one had its trailer in the piggy back position for easier maneuvering.
Anticipating the pass, I had to pull slightly to the right. I noticed that our left mirrors only cleared by a matter of 5 or 6 inches on that narrow road, and also that suddenly, the bus began to slow down. I did not fully understand what was happening immediately, but as I adjusted the steering to clear that truck, the right rear tires ran down in the soft shoulder of the road. Having cleared the passing truck I tried turning back to the left somewhat and giving it some gas, but our fate was already en route; the rear tire kept to its given path and the rest of the bus went along for the ride. At the curve of the road the shoulder was level with the road, but quickly led down into a 6 foot ditch. The bus's rear end proceeded into the ditch and the whole bus slowly succumbed. 54 visitors and one local Chacheeko had an unplanned Alaskan adventure as the bus rolled over onto its right side down into a ditch full of Salmon Berries, Devil's Club and Skunk Cabbage!
I simply hung on to the steering wheel as we rolled, and landed on my feet on the now useless door. The passengers mostly just tumbled down against the windows and on top of one another. I reached up to turn the engine off and grab the radio. As I was relatively calm and matter-of-fact, my dispatcher didn't quite believe me when I told her what happened. Thankfully, when I called out through the bus I found that there were no serious injuries! A couple of us, including the driver of the log truck we had just passed, managed to remove the front window of the bus so folks could actually just walk out and up onto the road. Some of the more robust passengers popped out windows from the left side, now the 'roof,' and climbed up on the side, now the top, of the bus.
It wasn't long before the road was clogged with emergency vehicles and a replacement bus (a big yellow, narrow, school bus). Company officials and Alaska State Troopers were gathering statements from my passengers and I was in a Troopers car where every word I said was written down and signed off on. My habit of making quick quips and glib comments has not come to me just lately. When the sergeant asked me what happened I summarized the whole incident in two sentences. "When I came around that curve and saw the truck coming I pulled to the right. I guess I pulled too far to the right!"
I found out later that a simple mention of the facts in that form, could, and would be taken as a confession of guilt in a court of law. That's why they tell you to not say a word after an accident.
Most of the witness cards filled out that day contained positive testimony about my courtesy, professionalism and good driving skills. About how I handled the emergency well etc. There was one broken collarbone in the melee, but apparently, one couple blamed me for a problem that could not (or should not) be established by X-rays. Among all the ensuing lawsuits; against the state of Alaska, the road builder, the logging company, the tour company, the bus manufacturer and even their lovely old bus driver, me, one older couple decided that it was my fault their sex life ended up in the proverbial ditch!