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A tragic Utah bus crash spotlights the gaps in cellular coverage
By David Grant Long
Often it takes a tragedy to bring about needed change.
For San Juan County, Utah, that tragedy occurred Jan. 6, when a busload of skiers returning to the Phoenix, Ariz., area from Telluride, Colo., veered off a narrow, curving road northeast of Mexican Hat well after dark and plummeted 40 feet down an embankment.
The bus's top was torn off as it rolled, and the passengers were ejected in all directions.
Some were killed instantly as the bus crushed them, and others ultimately died of their injuries, with 10 fatalities among the 52 people on board. Injuries to those who survived ranged from critical to broken bones to cuts and contusions, with no one left unscathed.
The scene resembled the aftermath of a terrorist attack, cries of pain mingling with calls for help.
Those travelers still conscious soon realized what a terrible fix they were in. Their cell phones wouldn't work because they were out of service range, and traffic on the lonely road was sparse. Many of the passengers had shed their ski clothing, including their shoes, and had scant protection from the mud and rain, which would later turn to snow.
While they waited for a vehicle to pass by, the passengers who remained somewhat able-bodied helped those more seriously hurt, using their cell phones for light and covering them with clothes from their scattered luggage to ward off shock in the growing cold.
After what may have been the better part of an hour - the exact time remains unclear - they were able to flag down a passing truck, and the driver still had to travel another 10 miles before he could pick up a signal on his cell phone and alert authorities to the horrific crash. A little later another busful of skiers who were also on the excursion arrived and did what they could to help the injured.
Just how long it took to alert authorities and summon help is difficult to pin down, said San Juan County Sheriff Mike Lacy.
"We've heard that it was 15 minutes before someone came by and as much as 45 minutes, so I don't know that they knew (exactly) what time the accident happened, to tell you the honest truth — it's just kind of hard to say that."
Once contacted, the emergency responders still had to assemble and travel to the site from Blanding, Monticello and other towns in the region, all many miles from the crash. Even county vans normally used to transport senior citizens had their seats removed and were employed to carry the injured to one of several locations where medical care was provided.
"Radio communication (among the responders) wasn't all that bad, but there was no cell-phone communication at that particular spot," Lacy said.
The sheriff, who along with five of his deputies was among the responders, declined to speculate on whether the delay in initiating rescue efforts might have cost lives.
"It's hard to say in something like that (because) a lot of the people who died were pretty banged up," he said.
But Charlie DeLorme, director of San Juan County Economic Development and a staunch proponent of improving cell-phone communication in the county, said he believes it's possible quicker notification of the accident could have prevented some loss of life.
"Here was an instance where I just felt like - hearing from some of my friends (who were among the rescuers) - that maybe if there had been immediate contact, a couple folks might have been saved."
Three of the victims probably died instantly, he said, four died during transport, and another three have since died of their injuries. "You just wonder if there was some better communication if we could have saved one of them."
Lighting up the accident scene, which stretched over a broad area, was initially accomplished by a passing motorist, Lacy said.
"There was a Navajo fellow from Monument Valley who works in Parachute, Colo., that had a great big generator in the back of his pickup, and as soon as he got there — he came upon it some time afterwards — he had lights there and his generator going and had things lit up pretty good.
"And then when the rescue units got there they had their lights hooked up, too, off a generator."
San Juan County Commissioner Lynn Stevens, who has been travelling weekly to Salt Lake City while the state legislature is in session, is lobbying for the state's help in providing cell-phone service to the Utah portion of the sprawling Navajo Nation, and is hoping for some state funding toward that end.
"It's probably a little too strong to say there's a committment, but there's a recognition in the governor's office as well as the public-safety commissioner and (some) members of the legislature of the great need for improved communications on the reservation in the southeastern part of Utah," Stevens said, "and initiatives are being drafted to figure out the right funding approach to achieve that.
"I don't know all the technical answers, but it would take more microwave towers positioned in the right places," he said, because at present, "virtually the whole reservation is blank.
"We're going to attempt to get coverage of the reservation — the Utah portion — more or less the entire reservation as it relates to where people live. I don't have an estimate of the number of towers - it would probably take four or five because of the topography, but that's just a wild guess. Part of the problem is line-of-sight, he explained.
"We've got these huge cliffs and buttes and things scattered all through the expanse of the reservation, so the towers would have to be placed where they would be effective down in the road areas and in areas where people live - you couldn't build a tower high enough in Mexican Hat to cover the area south of it.
"We have a communication tower on a water tower in Mexican Hat, but Mexican Hat is down between the rocks just like Bluff is, so the coverage of that particular tower doesn't go anywhere except in the immediate local area."
There is also a small tower in Monument Valley erected for the Red Bull air races that was left in place after that event, he said, but it provides very limited service only in the immediate area.
"There's very little coverage anywhere south of the San Juan River (the northern border of the Navajo lands) in any direction from Bluff."
Bluff is located just north of the river and surrounded by tall sandstone formations and mesas as well.
"So (the reservation) would require almost total coverage because it's virtually all uncovered now."
Stevens said he'd driven along that same stretch of road about an hour before the accident. "The main problem obviously was the enormous number of injured persons," he said. "Just about every person needed some kind of attention - at least enough to determine whether they needed more."
Beyond that, it was very dark, and "the responders didn't have any information about how many people were actually on the bus, so there was a difficulty in them knowing whether they'd finished their job or not.
"It totally saturated — overloaded — all the ambulance capabilities, all the receiving capacities of the clinics and hospitals in the general area," he said. For instance, San Juan Hospital in Monticello, 80 miles away, received 24 of the victims, and the more seriously injured of those were sent on to larger hospitals in Salt Lake City, Moab, Grand Junction, Colo., and Farmington, N.M. some located hundreds of miles away. Other medical facilities, including Southwest Memorial Hospital in Cortez, sent doctors, EMTs and ambulances to assist in the rescue effort.
DeLorme said the bus tragedy had given him additional impetus toward improving cell-phone coverage in the county, and that he is working with the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority to get an antenna installed on a huge Western Area Power Administration tower high above Mexican Hat on Raplee Ridge.
When he approached the NTUA about the project a year ago, DeLorme said, "they were just not interested at all in even discussing with me or WAPA the possibility of co-location of cellular infrastructure there.
"However, this accident has basically given us the leverage and created an awareness of the paucity of service in this area," he said, "and so we're actually moving forward again, using Commnet Cellular, and it looks very positive for getting a co-location on that massive tower up there that will fill in a lot of blind spots."
He said the small volume of phone traffic expected to be generated at that location normally wouldn't warrant Commnet's interest, but the company was willing to move ahead on it if WAPA will cut a little off the rent and SJED would share some of the infrastructure costs.
"If we all partner together, we can make it happen," he said.
Still, DeLorme stressed, the vast, sculptured sandstone reaches that make the county so attractive to residents and tourists alike preclude the possibility of seamless communication in every nook and cranny.
"Having been out in the field a lot now with some of the construction engineers, I know that due to the exquisite nature of our topography, we're never going to have blanketed coverage and there are always going to be gaps, which is one of the joys and beauties of canyon country."