Locals petition for Mother’s Day Bus Crash Memorial to be included in City Park Master Plan

Published 9:36 am Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

LAPLACE — The stone grotto and Virgin Mary statue that sit outside of Place Dubourg in LaPlace is more than a serene space for quiet reflection. To this day, it’s the only physical memorial of the infamous Mother’s Day Bus Crash that claimed the lives of 22 senior citizens in 1999.

Nearly all of the victims were St. John the Baptist Parish residents, and eight resided at Place Dubourg. More than 20 years after the crash, New Orleans filmmaker Royd Anderson is garnering support among locals to implement a permanent memorial at the scene of the accident in New Orleans City Park. The proposed memorial would be located across from the Pan American Stadium, near the site where the bus veered off the road, ripped through the guardrail on I-610 and struck the concrete edge of a 75-foot-wide ravine.

While plans for a memorial up until this point have received little response from City Park officials, Anderson now sees a window of opportunity with the advent of a new City Park Master Plan. Community engagement sessions are anticipated to begin this fall as Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. embarks on an 18-month master-planning process that will guide the development of City Park through the next century.

According to City Park officials, the park is in need of tens of millions of dollars’ worth of repairs and maintenance for bridges, sidewalks, lagoons, roads, signage, lighting, and renovations to sports facilities. Goals of the master plan include fostering greater accessibility and long-term conservation. City Park CEO Cara Lambright shared that there is not currently an inventory or succession plan for the park’s sprawling oak trees, which unfortunately have a life expectancy. By inviting residents to sign up for newsletter updates on the master planning process, Lambright hopes to hear feedback on what additions the community would like to see.

Anderson is spearheading a petition with support from River Parishes residents urging Lambright to consider a Mother’s Day Bus Crash Memorial in the planning process for a new and improved City Park. The petition notes that New Orleans City Park was in no way liable or responsible for the crash; rather, the crash was caused by an impaired driver in poor health in combination with insufficient guard rails along the Interstate.

Royd recounted the horrific crash in his 2019 documentary, “The Mother’s Day Bus on 610.” He previously rallied support to construct a memorial for the St. Charles Parish ferry disaster, which now sits inside the East Bank Bridge Park.

“It’s very important to remember lives lost and the changes that have been made in society because of these tragedies,” Anderson said. “These disasters have made the world a safer place.”

The Mother’s Day Bus Crash resulted in seat belts being required on commercial buses. Additionally, drivers must now undergo a federal medical qualification screening and are subject to random drug and alcohol testing.

In 2020, Anderson contacted Armadillo Signs to draft a proposal for a permanent memorial with a concrete pedestal and metal plaque. Price estimates at the time were $3,400 for cast bronze or $3,000 for cast aluminum. Anderson said New Orleans City Park would not be responsible for the expenses, which would be covered through fundraising.

“This was the worst vehicular accident in the state’s history. There should be some marker there for future generations and loved ones to see,” Anderson said.

Most importantly, the memorial would bear the names of the 22 victims: Dorothy Richard, Shirley Gauff, Agnes Agee, Florence Mathieu, Rita Gaillard, Rose Streva, Lorina Rogers, Marion Mancuso, Dolly Sposito, Juanita Marse, Timothy Victor, Arto Marse, Calvin Johnston, Olivia Humphries, Bellie Elfer, Anna Johnston, Darnella Cambre, Emily A. Torres, Isma Keller, Jewell Williams, Aurora Rios, and Mildred Remondet.

The victims were loved and remain dearly missed. Many were pillars of the community. Elfer was a retired shopkeeper, while Marse was a retired machinist at Godchaux Sugar Refinery and Bayou Steel. Remondet was active in VFW, American Legion, and the Knights of Columbus Auxiliary. Torres was remembered as a staple in the St. Joan of Arc cafeteria. Gauff was a devoted volunteer through the Council on Aging Senior Centers, a tradition carried on by her son, St. John Parish Assessor Lucien Gauff III.

Gauff remembers Mother’s Day 1999 as if it were yesterday. He stopped by his mother’s house that morning after getting off of work and saw she had her ice chest pulled out, an unmistakable sign that she had a bus trip planned. It was a few hours later that Gauff got a call from one of his mother’s friends urging him to call Charity Hospital because his mother’s bus had been in an accident.

Gauff called the hospital and was told his mother was there. As he was getting dressed and  to head over, he turned on the TV and saw a breaking news segment about the crash reporting that four had been confirmed deceased.

Now alerted to the severity of the crash, Gauff called his father and rushed to New Orleans. Upon arriving at Charity, Gauff learned the victims of the crash did not have identifying information such as purses or wallets on them, and he would have to walk through the emergency room to identify his mother or others. He checked and realized Shirley Gauff was not at the hospital. He then called the morgue, and the coroner reported that no victims from the crash were present.

Gauff spent the next few hours driving between area hospitals, searching for any leads. This included a stop to the scene of the incident, where he was asked for a roster of individuals on the bus. He promised to locate a copy of the roster if they could help him find his mother, but the only information he was given was that she was  taken to Charity.

Without any leads, Gauff returned to the morgue to find about a dozen bodies from the crash had now been taken in. Gauff looked through the photos but did not see his mother. The coroner told him he had another six bodies to process. Twenty minutes later, he returned upstairs. Gauff finally had an answer to his mother’s whereabouts when he identified her body based on her clothing and  jewelry he had gifted her. She had been decapitated in the crash.

Shirley Gauff was known in St. John Parish as an educator with a love for  children. Even today, people approach Lucien Gauff and talk about the impact his mother had on their loved ones when it seemed like no one else could get through to them.

“My mom gave back to this community and was all about service, and I think that’s where I get it from. She spent a lot of time with the senior citizens. I would always ask her, why do you always spend so much time with these old people? She said, one day, I too will be old, and I want someone to spend time with me,” Gauff said. “I guess that’s why I call bingo at Place Du Bourg on Tuesdays with the Rotary Club. I am on the board for the Council on Aging and always looking for things to do for senior citizens.”

Gauff and his siblings created a scholarship in their mother’s name, and he would be willing to help finance a permanent memorial in City Park.

“I hope it comes to fruition,” he said. “For us, she lives forever because we’re constantly sharing stories. This would help her legacy live forever.”

The online petition can be found at gopetition.com/petitions/mothers-day-bus-crash-memorial.html