Monday, October 12, 2009

American Fork High School Band Instructor Heather Christensen An Authentic American Hero, Laid Down Her Life For Her Friends In Idaho Crash

John 15:13 (KJV) - "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends".

Apparently, Heather Christenson interpreted the word "man" generically. On Saturday October 10th, 2009, when the bus full of high school band members upon which she was aboard began veering out of control after the driver lost consciousness, she wondered for a brief moment what would happen is she didn't take action. Since she didn't like the answer, she took action, laying down her life in the process, but perhaps saving others from death. This post assembles and combines as many pertinent facts as possible from multiple sources.

The Situation: All 222 students in the American Fork High School Marching Band, led by their instructor, 33-year-old Heather Christenson, had traveled in a four-bus caravan to Idaho State University in Pocatello to participate in a competition. The band, one of Utah's best-known, had just added the Pocatello competition to a string of victories that include 19 straight Utah state titles. The school band also performed at President George W. Bush's 2005 inauguration and marched in the 2007 Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York. After winning the competition, they began the return journey to American Fork.

The Defining Moment: While traveling southbound on I-15 near McCammon, Idaho, the driver of Christensen's bus, 50-year-old Debra Jarvis, apparently passed out and slumped over. The bus began to veer out of control. According to witness statements, Christensen immediately went straight for the wheel to try to regain control of the bus. Unfortunately, the bus ultimately flipped over, but because of Christenson's intervention, it stopped about 100 feet short of some lava rocks. A newer KSL story discloses that the bus literally "threaded the needle" between the lava rocks and a 12-foot embankment. However, Christenson was partially ejected from the bus through the window, resulting in her death.

There were no other fatalities. Of the 54 students on board, 44 of them were treated at Portneuf West Medical Center in Pocatello for an assortment of injuries; all have since been released. Debra Jarvis has also been released from hospital. The bus is owned and operated by the Provo-based Lake Shore Motor Coach Lines; company vice-president Jerry Hardman declined to comment except to say that the company was cooperating with the investigation. Bannock County Sheriff Lorin W. Nielsen said the National Transportation Safety Board has expressed interest in investigating the crash but has not yet sent anyone to look into it. But according to this newer Provo Daily Herald story, Idaho authorities have not ruled out criminal charges against the driver. KSL news video embedded below:

Video Courtesy of

Salt Lake Tribune photo gallery available HERE. Also read this newer Deseret News story providing first-person accounts from some of the students aboard the bus.

On Sunday October 11th, there was a vigil held at American Fork High School; the house was packed with the Tribune reporting at least 1,000 in attendance. Governor Gary Herbert was also in attendance, and called Christensen a hero. The Provo Daily Herald offers even more details about the vigil. And accolades and tributes are beginning to pour in from all over the Wasatch Front, as it becomes apparent that this was not atypical behavior on Heather Christenson's part. A former band member expresses her thoughts in A Fickle Pickle, and another former student sounds off on Ditto's Pad.

But accolades soon poured from the mainstream media as well. Christenson is spoken of as a natural musician who could play any instrument by ear and had naturally perfect pitch. Instructing the band's woodwind section was just one of the many hats Christensen wore. She put in 18-hour days, leading numerous music and fine arts programs in Utah County and working to build her pupils' self-confidence through performance. She's lauded for making her classes a particularly positive environment for her students. Because she was still single, she re-directed the love normally reserved for one's own children towards her students. Here's a video of the band's performance up at Idaho State University:

But these traits pre-date her service at American Fork High School. Previously, Heather Christenson had conducted the marching band at Riverton High School after it first opened in 1999, and made a similar impression on students there. Riverton High alumni and current students who remember the 33-year-old band director held flickering candles with shaking hands Sunday evening, recalling how their favorite teacher inspired them in music, matters of the heart, and much more.

This is not the first time an American Fork faculty member has made the news. Another faculty member, Michael Pratt, previously made the news earlier this year. I would suggest that Heather Christenson is far more representative - and typical - of American Fork's teachers than Michael Pratt.

Yes indeed, greater love hath no woman than this, that a woman lay down her life for her friends.


Anonymous said...

If you’re in a school band - marching band, concert band, jazz band or even rock band, you have to check out the new Rhett & Link School Band Rap video.

Anonymous said...

Heather Christensen is the distant cousin of Daniel Louis Parmenter, Charles Joseph Bybee, Terry Joe Mabry, and Gary Michael Joy!

Anonymous said...

Besides Heather Christensen, there are heroes have distant relatives of each other:

Randall Kent Burris and James Frederick Fayard, III are 9th cousins of each other!

Anonymous said...

Charles Joseph Bybee is related not just to Heather Christensen, related to yet another guardian angel, extremely distant cousin, Terry Joe Mabry! Both are related to William Arnold Costello, also known as Popeye! Bybee is like Popeye, the man gave his life saving a woman, and he is with the Lord!