A hometown hero: Mae Chee Castillo


Everyone remembers Annie Wauneka and what she meant to the Navajo people. But Mae Chee Castillo is only a distant memory to most.

File photo
In this May 8, 1985, file photo, Vice Chairman Ed T. Begay presents a plaque to Mae Chee Castillo in honor of her heroism.

“Mae Castillo may have been up there with Annie Wauneka,” said Ken White Jr., who was director of the tribe’s Foster Grandparents Program back in 1986.

The 72-year-old grandmother made national headlines that year, first by single-handedly rescuing 11 pre-schoolers from a bus just seconds before it exploded. Then she was invited to the White House by then President Ronald Reagan only to be kicked out by one of Reagan’s assistants just minutes after being recognized for her heroism.

Castillo’s adventures began one morning in early 1986 as she was traveling to a pre-school on a bus in her hometown of Pueblo Pintado, New Mexico.

White said she was a member of the Foster Grandparent Program, telling stories related to Navajo culture to the children. Since she had no vehicle, she often took the school bus with the children.

It was a dreary day with the roads muddy because of past rains. The bus was traveling on a muddy road, White said, when it got stuck in the mud. The driver began rocking the bus back and forth to get out.

The bus had two gas tanks, one holding 15 gallons and the other 30, he said. The rocking back and forth and the smaller tank scraping the bottom caused it to heat up and the bus caught on fire.

As soon as he saw the fire, the driver dove out of the front part of the bus, leaving Castillo with the 11 pre-schoolers, all in seat belts and all scared.

“She went child by child, taking off their seat belts, grabbing them by their clothes and tossing them out the back door of the bus,” White said.

When she got out of the bus herself, she counted the kids outside and came to only 10. The 11th child was still inside the bus.

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Categories: People

About Author

Bill Donovan

Bill Donovan has been writing about the Navajo Nation government since 1971 and for the Navajo Times since 1976. He is currently semi-retired and is living in Torrance, California, and continues to report for the Navajo Times.