Big Sandy Bus Accident 1958

Prestonsburg.  The morning of Feb 28, 1958 was cloudy and cold, but the pavement on old U.S. 23 above  Lancer was dry.
 
About 7 AM, bus driver John Alex DeRossett began his usual route from Cow Creek to consolidated schools in Prestonsburg, stopping to collect students in the communities of Sugar Loaf and Emma.
 
The bus would never reach the schools.  It would plunge into the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River, killing 26 students and the bus driver.
 
The crash happened 30 years ago today and remains the worst school bus accident in U.S. history.
 
DeRossett was on schedule.  Unlike an older bus he had driven the day before---a bus one student described as having its rear emergency door wired shut---Bus No. 27 had just been serviced.
 
About 8:10 AM, three miles east of Prestonsburg at the mouth of Knotley Hollow, DeRossett pulled off the road where two 14 year old freshman girls, Ezelle Pennington and Joyce Matney, stood hugging their books and waiting with six other students.
 
Joyce, a band member, and Ezelle were best friends.  Both wore fashionably long skirts, bobby socks, loafers and sweaters.  A week earlier, they had ordered identical Easter outfits.  Now, they discussed a forthcoming Prestonsburg High School basketball game.
 
With them stood Joyce Matney's little sister, Rita Cheryl, 8, who had blue green eyes and reddish hair.  Rita Cheryl was "a doll - the prettiest little girl that ever was." said Ezelle Pennington Copley, now 44 and a resident of East Point.
 
The eight students climbed aboard.  Someone asked Joyce Matney what her grandfather's pickup was doing "down there in the ditch line."
 
About 200 yards down the highway, a pickup was mired to its axles in the ditch alongside the road.  A wrecker driven by Donald "Dootney" Horn was maneuvering across the road to pull it out.
 
Because the bus was almost full, Joyce and Ezelle took separate seats.  Joyce and her little sister took seats near the front of the bus, while Ezelle found one near the back, a section routinely reserved for the older boys.
 
As DeRossett changed gears, Janice Blackburn, 14, sitting with her feet against the top of a rear wheel well, looked up from her book.  She saw Horn's wrecker and went back to her reading.
 
In the back of the bus, the older boys spotted the wrecker and someone predicted the bus would hit it, said Donald Dillion of Prestonsburg, who was an eighth grader.  "He had plenty of time to stop if he'd wanted to."
 
Dillion does not recall a collision.  But Isaac Vanderpool, then 17, who was sitting behind the driver, said that DeRossett yelled when the bus struck the wrecker's left rear bumper and fender.
 
Aroused students began screaming, too, when the bus turned a hard left toward the river, striking a parked car and narrowly missing a trailer owned by Bennie Blackburn, a notorious Floyd County bootlegger.
 
Ezelle Pennington Copley remembers watching Blackburn's trailer flash by as the bus slid head-first down the riverbank.
 
"I remember thinking, 'We're going to hit the trees any second,'" she said.  "But there were no trees.  The water was over the trees."
 
Half in the water, half out, the bus bobbed on the muddy surface like a yellow fishing float for a few minutes.  Some said one minute, others five.
 
DeRossett apparently was knocked unconscious.  As water gushed in through the broken windshield, many children sat in stunned silence. Others cried out and leaped into the aisle.
 
Near the back of the bus, the freezing water closed around the waist of William Leedy, 13, who said he blacked out briefly after the bus struck the wrecker.  In the mounting chaos, the boy made his way to the rear emergency door and, after turning a handle, kicked it open.
 
"I went in the water first - we were about 30 feet out, it seems like - and the boys started jumping out," Leedy recalled.
 
"It's lucky I was a good swimmer.  I got hold of Jerry Leslie first and pulled him to the riverbank and then just kept going back - as long as they were screaming and hollering."
 
In the bus, Donald Dillion and his older brother, Winston, 17, prepared to jump into the river.   One boy, Bucky Ray Jarrell, 14, "was with us back there, but he went back up front to get his sister and didn't come back," Donald Dillion said.
 
"I remember him yelling her name. 'Katie.'"
 
All over the bus, brothers and sisters were trying to find each other, Ezelle Copley said.  Others reported seeing terrified small children huddled together in seats, hugging each other.
 
One boy, David Wright, 14, escaped through an open window and pulled two smaller children after him, Donald Dillion said.
 
Ezelle scrambled over three seats to get to the emergency door where a small boy stood, frozen, refusing to jump into the water until his brother arrived, she said.
 
"I told him his brother was already out of the bus, so he jumped," she said.
 
"It wasn't true.  His brother didn't get out.  But I still don't know if that little kid hadn't jumped whether I'd had enough nerve to jump myself."
 
She does not recall exactly how she got to shore.  Others were flailing in the water.  Witnesses said Horn, the wrecker driver, and Blackburn, the bootlegger, slid down the bank and helped save several children.
 
Blackburn later spoke of "seeing little kids hanging on to branches and being swept away," Ezelle Copley said.  Blackburn died years later.
 
Climbing the riverbank, Ezelle looked back and saw the bus, almost submerged, with small arms and hands sticking out the windows.
 
As the vehicle went under, Isaac Vanderpool swam the length of the bus underwater and got out through the emergency door.
 
At the last minute, William Leedy grabbed a small girl by the hair.  But the current was so strong, he said, that is swept her away, leaving him with a handful of hair.
 
Jeff Gunnell, who was 14, remembers standing on the riverbank and watching the bus disappear.  "I don't think I realized then that everybody didn't get off," he said, "but you looked around and there weren't that many people there."
 
The river's heavy current rolled the bus across the river and about 250 yards downstream.  It took Army engineers and volunteers 53 hours to find the battered vehicle.
 
"We just couldn't believe something as big as a school bus could be in the river and we couldn't find it," said Floyd County Judge-Executive John M. Stumbo, who was a member of the school board.
 
Thousand of people lined the riverbank and gasped as two bulldozers pulled the wreckage ashore, a girl's body hanging limply from the emergency door.
 
"Everybody on the banks just died away," Stumbo said.
 
Volunteers found only 15 bodies in the mud-filled bus.  It took another 69 days before the last child, a 9 year old girl, was found.
 
In the agonizing aftermath, no daylight hour passed without boats patrolling the river or men trampling the banks.  No night passed without volunteers patrolling five bridges under the flare of 88 million candlepower searchlights.
 
Ron Hager was a Prestonsburg High sophomore who lived at David.  "You could see the lights in the sky from there," said Hager, who is now assistant Floyd County school superintendent.
 
William Jarrell of Sugar Loaf, a coal miner, said his son's body was found in the bus, but it was 40 days before volunteers found Katie, his 13 year old daughter, seven miles downstream at Auxier.
 
Meanwhile, Jarrell found a small boat and traveled 100 miles down the Big Sandy to the Ohio River at Catlettsburg, searching for his daughter.  The trip took three days, he said, and he would not have stopped except that the Ohio "was just so wide."
 
"If they hadn't found her, I don't know whether I would have ever quit looking," he said.
 
Three of 16 families involved in the fatalities lost all their children.  Among them were storekeeper James B. Goble and wife, Virginia, whose two sons, James Edward, 12, and John Spencer, 11, and a daughter, Anna Laura, 9 were drowned.
 
Two children were lost from each of four other families.  Among them were Joyce Matney and her little sister, Rita Cheryl.
 
The dead children ranged in age from 8 to 17.
 
"It's the worst thing that's ever happened in Floyd County." said Josephine Davidson Fields, an 84 year old Prestonsburg woman.  "The very worst thing."
 
Floyd County and Eastern Kentucky have grown since the later 1950s.  The curvy old two-lane road - once the major north-south route in Eastern Kentucky - was long ago displaced by four-lane highways.
 
The cause of the tragedy remains a mystery.
 
After all these years, witnesses still give conflicting accounts of what happened outside and inside the bus, before and during the accident.
 
"There are lots of things they thought happened, but no proof of it," Stumbo said.
 
"I don't think anybody will ever know what really happened, to tell the truth," said Charlene Jervis, 66, whose 14 year old daughter, Marcella, was drowned.
 
For the reasons Time magazine called "unaccountable,"  DeRossett apparently did not slow down before striking Horn's truck.  Horn told a reporter in 1958 that DeRossett "had good visibility and plenty of room to pull around me."
 
Donald Dillion said it appeared to him that DeRossett started to pull around the wrecker and snagged the truck's bumper.
 
Questions about mechanical problems involving steering and brakes on the bus were never answered because its front wheels were pulled off while the vehicle was being raised from the river.
 
Suggestions that DeRossett might have suffered a heart attack were refuted by an autopsy that found he drowned at the steering wheel.
 
Horn, now 60, a Floyd County businessman, declined to comment, but he had denied suggestions that he backed the wrecker into the approaching bus.
 
"People who suffer through an experience like that have to blame somebody." said Prestonsburg lawyer Woodrow Burchett.  "Sometimes, accidents just happen."
 
No criminal charges or lawsuits were filed, although Burchett said he later conducted a "court of inquiry" at the request of DeRossett's family.
 
Several of the 21 survivors testified, as did two bystanders who were given lie-detector tests.  A report filed by Floyd County Judge Henry Stumbo cleared the 27 year old bus driver of allegations that he had been negligent or careless, Burchett said.  Stumbo is now dead.
 
Parents of the drowned children voted to share insurance payments they collected from the school board - about $2,000 to $3,000 for each student - with DeRossett's family.
 
Horn gave the victim's parents the insurance money he received for his damaged wrecker.  A group called the School Bus Disaster Committee raised about $55,000, which was divided among the 16 families after paying funeral expenses.
 
Some of the students who got out of the bus attended the string of grim funerals that followed.  Some did not.
 
"I felt guilty," said Ezelle Copley, "I kept thinking what their parents would think, looking at me."
 
The accident changed her life, Mrs. Copley said.  Before, she and the Matney girls had waded and played in the river near their homes, she said, "But I never went around it again."
 
School was suspended for weeks in Floyd County, but when it resumed, Ezelle could not bring herself to get on a school bus.
 
After a few taxi rides to school, she finally boarded a bus.  "It was awful," said said.  "I remember grabbing the handle of the door, being stiff as a poker and getting sick after I got to school."
 
Winston Dillion told a reporter 10 years later that he never retuned to school.  "I just couldn't stand to see those empty seats,"  he said.  "I had gone through grade school with most of the boys."
 
For years, Mrs. Copley said, she had nightmares.  When her two children started school, they became the central figures in the dreams, said said.
 
"Now that I look back on it, I think we all probably needed (counseling) help," she said, "but people didn't think of that then."
 
Leedy said a stretch in the Marines after school helped him sort out his psychological problems.
 
"The only object marking the site of the accident now is the rotting post of a rusty guardrail that was put up soon after the accident.
 
Jarrell, now 68, agrees with Leedy, but James B. Goble of Emma said a majority of the victims' parents opposed a monument.
 
Goble and his wife had another child four years after their three children were drowned.
 
"The majority of the parents feel that the fewer times it (the accident) is brought up, the better," Goble said.  "We're reminded of it every time we pass there anyway."
 
Here is a list of the people who died in the 1958 Floyd County school bus disaster:
 
Doris Faye Burchett, 15, of Emma
James Edison Carey, 9, of Emma
Glenda May Cisco, 17, and her brother, Kenneth Forest Cisco, 14, of Sugar Load
Sandra Faye Cline, 8, and her sister, Paulette Cline, 9, of Lancer
Imogene Darby, 17, of Cow Creek
Linda Darby, 14 of Cow Creek
John Alex DeRossett, 17, of Water Gap
James Edward Goble, 12 his brother, John Spencer Goble, 11, and sister, Anna Laura Goble, 9, of Emma
Jane Carol Harris, 14, of Emma
John Harlan Hughes Jr., 13, of Emma
Margaret Louise Hunt, 15, of Cow Creek
Bucky Ray Jarrell, 14, and his sister, Katie Carol Jarrell, 13, of Sugar Loaf
Marcella Jervis, 14, of Emma
Montaine Jervis, 15, of Endicott
Thomas Roosevelt Jervis, 13, of Buffalo Creek
Katherine Justice, 15, of Endicott
Nannie Joyce McPeek, 17, of Lancer
Joyce Ann Matney, 14, and her sister, Rita Cheryl Matney, 8, of Lancer
James L. Meade Jr., 9, of Lancer
James Thomas Ousley, 15, of Lancer
Randy Scott Wallen, 17, of Lancer
 
A memorial to the school bus victims is located about midway between the convention center and May Lodge at Jenny Wiley Park.  The stone monument sits at the top of a heart-shaped garden.  Three plaques are displayed on the monument.  One plaque has 27 crosses representing the children and bus driver who died in the he accident.  A cross stands at the heart's point.  The monument was dedicated in 1994.
 
Sharon Young Jebavy <><
ShaLamont@iwaynet.net

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