TREMONTON – September 26, 2005 was a dark day for Utah State University when one of its vans rolled, killing eight students and an instructor as they were returning to campus from a field trip. The van blew a tire on Interstate 84 causing the accident. All of the students were in their 20’s. Two students survived.
Fifteen year-old Rusten Thornley was under pressure to get his Eagle Scout badge before the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints separated from Boy Scouts of America. His project was planned a couple of years earlier: to place a memorial at the location of the USU van crash site.
“We would go hunting on family property to Yost (a ghost town at the base of the Raft River Mountains in Box Elder County). On our way home we would see who could find the banner left at the crash site first,” Rusten’s mother Katie said. “The banner faded and in time it deteriorated until there was nothing left.”
“My dad (Russel) said a memorial at that location would be a great Eagle Scout project once when we passed it,” Rusten said. “So when it came time for my Eagle Scout project, I knew what I wanted to do.”
Two of the boys killed in the crash went to Bear River High School and the crash affected the whole town.
For Katie Thornley, the memorial held a particular place in her heart. Her cousin Justin Huggins, 22 years-old and a Tremonton boy, was one of the students who lost his life that day.
“We were the same age and pretty good friends,” she said.” Dustin Fuhriman, 22 was also from Tremonton and died in the crash.”
Others who perished that day and named on the monument are Steven Bair, 22; Justin Gunnell, 24; Jonathan Jorgensen, 22; Curtis Madsen, 23; Ryan McEntire, 22; Bradley Wilcox, 26; and instructor Evan Parker, 45. Students Robbie Petersen and Jared Nelson survived the accident.
Katie announced the project on the 14th anniversary of the crash on social media and within the first couple of days the post had 500 shares.
She said this whole thing took off and made her son get out of his comfort zone.
“I was worried I would have to go door to door and ask for money,” Rusten said. “As soon as people found out what I was doing, the money started to come in.”
Some people donated $5 to $10 and others gave $20 to $50, he said. In the end, he had some 200 people give money for the project.
“A former USU student sent us a text and told us he would match our donations for the memorial,” Rusten said. “The text said ‘USU and the college of Ag holds a special place in me and my brothers heart so we want to make sure you are taken care of.’”
While participating in Drivers Education, Rusten said his teacher stopped the car and told the other students he was impressed with the project and pulled money from his wallet and donated to the cause.
“People on fixed incomes would find me and donate,” he said. “We had a lot of support from people. I didn’t have to ask for money; people were in line trying to me give money.”
All said and done, the 15 year-old collected nearly $10,000 and approached Brown Monument in Logan with his idea.
“They were really good to work with,” he said. “We were a little short and they covered the rest of the cost.”
The hardest part of the project for Rusten was what the monument should say.
“It was hard for me to to come up with a way to be respectful and give peace and closure to the families,” he said. “I finally settled on the slogan ‘Always Remember,’ that came from bracelets given out after the crash and the ‘Thank God for what you planted,’ came from a song on a tribute video.”
He contacted Freddie Manning, the owner of the property, who is in a wheelchair and brought him out to see what he wanted to do. He also contacted Utah Department of Transportation and got permission from them.
“We had to cut a fence to put it up,” he said. “I also had to get a shovel and level the ground a little.”
The project was 10 months in the making and on Tuesday, July 6, Brown Monument placed an 8 foot granite monument on the location of the crash with all the names of those who were killed that day nearly 15 years ago.
Rusten was the last one in his troop to receive his Eagle Scout before his congregation formally disbanded the troop.