Darwin "Gus" Hallbourg, the final survivor of the tragic 1946 Spokane Indians bus accident, died Saturday from a heart attack near his home in Manteca, Calif. He was 87.
Hallbourg spent six seasons as a Minor League pitcher and outfielder in a memorable career that spanned four years with the U.S. Navy in World War II and a devastating bus crash 61 years ago. Hallbourg developed pneumonia following a minor stroke in September, and he was being treated at a care center near Modesto.
The former Spokane right-hander was one of six survivors of a fatal accident that killed nine players on June 24, 1946, a tragic disaster that has stood as one of the worst in American sports history. The team bus, en route to a series in Bremerton, Wash., skidded off the wet Snoqualmie Pass highway and tumbled 350 feet into a valley, bursting into flames. Hallbourg escaped when he crawled out through a broken window, helping other teammates along the way.
"I couldn't believe that it was happening to us. It was a sensation that I really can't describe," Hallbourg told MiLB.com last year when interviewed on the 60th anniversary of the accident. "I couldn't comprehend that we were actually going over. I saw a flash of light and determined it was probably flames."
Despite the tragedy and loss in his life, Hallbourg is remembered as a happy and upbeat husband, father and grandfather.
"He always had a nice attitude," Hallbourg's brother, Don, told The Spokesman Review on Monday. "Nothing ever bothered him too much."
Hallbourg won 21 games for Pampa, Texas of the West Texas-New Mexico league in 1940, his second professional season. He won 15 games for Anaheim of the California League in 1941 before appearing in four games for Triple-A San Diego of the Pacific Coast League.
A native of Huntington, Mass., Hallbourg put his baseball career on hold when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy to serve in World War II. Afterward, Hallbourg returned to baseball and landed in Spokane, where he finished 7-6 before a pair of seasons with Lancaster of the Inter-State League. At 29, Hallbourg retired and began a 32-year career with the Pacific Telephone Company in California.
The Indians marked the 1946 accident with a 60th anniversary ceremony last year. Hallbourg was unable to attend the event, but still recalled it very clearly.
"As we got through the pass, on our right-hand side, a creek was down below," Hallbourg said. "We commented on [how] it would be a heck of a place to go over. We were on the downgrade, and lo and behold, I felt the bus lurch. I looked around, and we were in a skid going toward the edge."
The bus landed upright, but immediately exploded on impact.
"The gas tank had exploded, and the bus was actually on fire," he said. "All I recall is bumping and flashing."
Six of Hallbourg's teammates -- Bob Kinnaman, Bob Paterson, Fred Martinez, Bob James and George Risk -- died at the scene, along with player-manager Mel Cole. First baseman Vic Picetti was pronounced dead on arrival at King County Hospital in Seattle, pitcher George Lyden died from his injuries June 25, and catcher Chris Hartje, who had been seriously burned, died two days later. Eight of those nine had served in the military during World War II.
"I walked around to see what the other fellas were doing," Hallbourg said of his moments after escaping the bus. "I found most of them, and the ones that I found were beyond recognition."
Jack Lohrke, Spokane's third-base prospect, avoided the fatal accident when the bus stopped for lunch. Lohrke, who had sat beside Hallbourg on the bus, got word he'd been recalled by San Diego and immediately made his way back to Spokane on his own.
"My teammates were great fellas," Hallbourg said. "We were from different places, and still we were a real compatible team."
The baseball community responded with an outpouring of support for Spokane and the players' families. A benefit game was played to raise money for the Indians, and teams lent players to the club to fill out the roster. Hallbourg and Spokane returned to the field July 4 to finish the season.
"I think about it every year and every so often," Hallbourg said. "Boy, how lucky I was to come out of this in the shape I did. I don't see how anybody survived it."
Hallbourg, who would have turned 88 on Halloween, is survived by Roberta, his wife of 61 years; a brother; two sisters; three sons and a daughter. Hallbourg had five grandchildren and one great-grandchild. He was considered one of the best amateur golfers in Modesto and enjoyed growing tomatoes in his garden, according to The Spokesman Review. Following the war, Hallbourg got married and spent the 1946 summer in Spokane. Baseball was his honeymoon.
"Still, I've had a great life," he said.
Danny Wild is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.