California man hopes to bring Suburban ambulance from New Mexico back to life

New Mexico News

HATCH, N.M. (KRQE) – A California man recently purchased a 1972 Suburban ambulance as part of a restoration project, but first, he wanted to learn about its history. So, he posed all of his questions on a social media page and it led him right back to New Mexico.

The letters are barely legible and the paint is peeling away, but Steven Prater said that doesn’t mean anything.

“She does drive,” he said. Prater admitted, “she” also needs some engine work and a little love on the outside.

“I had to come home and break the news to my wife that I found a project,” he said.

Prater is a California paramedic and a longtime member of a car club known as Professional Cars International that restores specialty cars. He said he’s been looking for an old Suburban ambulance for the last 10 to 15 years, and it wasn’t until last month a friend sent him a link to this one.

“I opened it up and, ‘Boom!’ There’s this beautiful white ambulance for sale,” Prater said.

Prater said the man selling it was in the movie business and originally bought it to use as a prop. Instead, Prater purchased the ambulance for $6,000. He said in 1972 it sold for about $9,500.

He immediately posted the buy to Facebook asking other vintage car owners for help.

“I was looking for information, I’m history buff at heart,” he said.

The ambulance still had the stretcher inside with the word “HATCH” engraved across the top. When Prater cleaned it out, he also found faded radio logs, signed by the EMT’s who drove it.

“I never knew what happened to White Thunder,” Joan Halsell said.

That’s because Halsell was a child when her mother drove it.

“There were times mom would drive us to school in White Thunder,” she said. “My sister was probably a little petrified because it was a little unnerving for her, but I had fun.”

Halsell was born and raised in Hatch, New Mexico. Her mother, Patricia, was one of the primary EMT’s in town. Her signature remains on some of the radio logs Prater found.

“Sometimes if you were primary, that primary person world take the ambulance home and then go directly to the scene,” Halsell said.

She said her mother is partly responsible for helping bring more medical services into the Hatch area. She passed away in 2002 after battling cancer. That’s made Prater’s mission to restore the ambulance even more purposeful.

“It’s kind of formed a personal connection now, so I really want to preserve it and keep it exactly the way it was,” he said.

Halsell said she knows her mother is still with them, smiling and wishing she could drive White Thunder just a few more times.

Prater said it should take two to three years until the ambulance is completely restored.

“To see this, to see White Thunder, to see that it has a future still, that’s just invigorating,” Halsell said. “It’s like she lives on and that’s great, that’s life well-lived.”

Halsell said she and her siblings want to travel to see the ambulance once it’s ready.

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