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Death denied on wagon train trip

Eight mules strained at the harnesses. They were pulling four covered wagons up the steep grade that leads from the Chowchilla River to the little town of Raymond.

Each wagon was loaded with precious cargo — seven or eight fifth graders. They were on the third day of a Madera Method Wagon Train trek that would take them to the Daulton Ranch the next day. On that night, however, they would camp out in Raymond.

The year was 1996, and the Madera Method Wagon Train was in its fourth year of operation. The volunteer group of muleskinners, mounted outriders, and cooks hitched their mules to the wagons once a year and gave a class of youngsters the educational experience of their lives. They let them live life as it really was in the horse and buggy days.

Confidence for a safe trip ran high among parents, school officials, and law enforcement. There had never been an accident on any of the Madera Method adventures, one of which had been a 900-mile journey from Nogales, Arizona to Madera. That’s why no one was prepared for what happened on that warm April afternoon.

Climbing up from the Chowchilla River that day was more of an ordeal than an adventure. In the heat, the pace was slow and grinding, and the kids grew restless, packed as they were in the wagons. By noon, they were bouncing in and out of the vehicles to shake off their cramps by walking. As the mules and horses plodded along, so did the students until they became jaded themselves, at which time they jumped back in the wagons.

Before the kids began jumping in and out of the wagons, they were given strict orders about how to exit a moving, mule drawn vehicle. “Never jump over the side,” they were told. “Always leave by sliding out the end of the wagon.”

So, slowly, the caravan moved up the hill towards Raymond. All was well, or so everyone thought. They had, however, reckoned without Bonnie’s impatience. The 11-year-old wanted out, but she didn’t follow orders. She climbed over the side of the fourth wagon. Meanwhile her teacher was in the lead wagon, never dreaming of what was about to happen.

It was about 3 in the afternoon when an outrider came riding up the road whipping hard, riding light, and yelling, “stop the wagons!”

A student had been run over. Bonnie, while climbing over the side of the wagon, slipped and fell under the rear wheel. It had run over her head. The teacher froze; he couldn’t force himself to look back. He could only think of the unthinkable while the outriders rode back to the last wagon. What they saw when they got there was the final stage of a miracle that had been several days in the making.

The miracle began when Bonnie chose the wagon in which she wanted to ride on this trip. Three of them had the regular wooden wheels with steel rims — the kind that would crush anything over which they rolled. The fourth had been fitted up with automobile tire wheels, not quite as dangerous as wooden wheels, but still not something you would want to roll over your head, especially on a paved road like the one the wagons were following on the ride to Raymond.

The second phase of the miracle came when the trail boss decided to put the rubber tired wagon in the rear. This meant there would not be another wagon behind Bonnie’s wagon when she fell.

The final stage came when Bonnie slipped and fell under the rolling wagon wheels. The left rear tire rolled directly over her head.

Bonnie was still on the ground when the outriders reached her. Miraculously one of them was a physician, Dr. Tony Molina. His daughter was part of the class that was making the trip. Dr. Molina had managed to alter his busy schedule in order to join the crew as an outrider. When he reached Bonnie, he examined her and was stunned. The heavily loaded wagon had rolled directly over her head without crushing her skull.

Someone in the crew was able to alert the authorities by cell phone, and shortly an ambulance reached the wagons to take Bonnie to the hospital as a precautionary measure. Before leaving, however, Dr. Molina assured the crew and the kids that Bonnie was going to be fine.

The wagons finally reached their camp site in Raymond, and before they could finish their evening meal, Bonnie had rejoined the group with nothing but a few scratches on her face. She had been given a clean bill of health at the emergency room. She regaled her fellow students and the adult crew that night by describing what it felt like to have a wagon roll over your head and live to tell about it.

Now 26 years later, prayers of thanksgiving are still being offered for the wagon train miracle that restored a child to her family and opened the eyes of not a few adults.

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