“It was a tragedy of a kind and magnitude that had never before been visited, on the nation - 26 children, and a man imprisoned in a school bus that had plunged from U.S. 23 near Knotley Hollow, 3 miles south of here, into the Big Sandy River,” Norman Allen reported following the accident, in The Floyd County Times on March 6, 1958.
The accident occurred on what is now Route 1428 sometime after 8 a.m., when the school bus being driven by John Derossett struck a tow truck and careened off the road, down the steep river bank, and into the freezing muddy waters of the Big Sandy River. Years later, local residents remember the events of that day, and the months that followed.
“I can't drive by that spot and not think about those people,” said R.D. “Doc” Marshall. “I think about what they could have contributed to this community.”
Marshall, of Allen, should have been on the ill-fated bus, but fearing that it had left without him, he and another schoolmate, Jimmy Settles, chose to hitchhike to school.
“We were in first period freshman algebra class,” said Marshall recalling when the principal announced over the loudspeaker that the Cow Creek/Emma bus had crashed into the river. “I still remember those six empty seats in that class.”
Stories abound of children who normally rode that bus, but for one reason or another were not aboard on that fateful day.
The driver of the school bus, John Derossett, who would later be cleared of allegations of neglect or carelessness by County Judge Henry Stumbo, was 27 at the time of his death.
Ruthie Goble, of Prestonsburg, who was 27 at the time of the tragedy, talked about the effect it had on those who lost children, and the community as a whole.
Goble, who was living on Riverside Drive at the time, said, “I remember Uncle BD on that river every day looking for bodies. Him and Aunt Virginia lost their whole family.”
Three of the sixteen families affected by the tragedy lost all their children. Among those were James B. Goble and wife, Virginia, whose two sons, James Edward and John Spencer, and a daughter, Anna Laura, all perished in the icy waters.
Keith Darby, whose sister, Linda, was among the victims, said he was was only 6 when the accident took place,
“I was in the one-room schoolhouse where Virginia Goble taught when my father came in to tell her than none of her children had survived,” Darby said. “She just dropped to the floor and began screaming.”
According to Darby, James Edward had reportedly made it to shore, but went back after his sister Anna Laura. “He was a strong swimmer, it was important to him to be because of his arm, (James Edward reportedly had one arm amputated below the elbow prior to the bus accident) but he just couldn't carry himself and Anna.”
Marshall recalled his good friend, William Leedy, a survivor of the crash who passed away two years ago: “He told me, Bob, you just don't realize how cold and swift that water was.” Leedy was reportedly the first into the water after opening the rear emergency door.
“As the day wore on, the wails of mothers died out subsided into sobs. Fathers walked or stood in pale-faced silence, with a faraway look in their eyes. Their calm tones belied the terrific emotion that tore at them. The crowd, milling and swirling as it did, was held in the thrall of an almost palpable gloom,” Norman Allen continued in his report following the accident.
Volunteers and servicemen and women came in from all over the county, state and nation to aid in the search.
Wonelle Godsey, of Prestonsburg, remembered volunteering at the high school to help cook for the rescue workers who had come from all over to help with the accident. At one time it was estimated that over 500 Kentucky National Guardsmen were deployed to Floyd County as part of the effort to recover bodies. Schools were closed during the search while the guardsmen were billeted in both Prestonsburg High School and elementary school.
Marshall said looking back the community effort was tremendous. “There was no access to the river at that time, and Harry Ranier Sr. shut down his business and brought every piece of
equipment he had down to the river.”
The search ended on May 10, more than two months after the accident, with the recovery of Paulette Cline, the second of two children lost by James Colonel and Audrey Lafferty Cline, whose daughter Sandra's body, had been recovered with the bus.
The aftermath of the accident, Goble said, was just as hard to bear. “All of those funerals, one right after another. It was a very sad time.”
Goble said the grief after the accident was felt countywide. “It affected everybody.”
Janice Allen, who was 14 at the time and a survivor of the crash said in a recent interview, “Through the years, I just think people have had a difficult time dealing with the scope of it all.”
“You never forget something like this,” said Alvie Ousley, who with her husband Orville lost a son, James Thomas Ousley, 15, in the bus accident.
In the wake of the accident, what had been the Prestonsburg School Children Recovery Committee transformed into the current day Floyd County Rescue Squad.
The Floyd County Emergency and Rescue Squad, founded in 1958 was awarded the 2007 National Service or Sacrifice Award for Response during a ceremony in Washington D.C. The unit was founded by James B. Goble and Graham Burchett, whose daughter, Doris Faye, was another victim in the crash.
“It was important to those men that things were done right,” said Captain Tim Cooley of the rescue squad's 50 years of service. “They did everything perfect.”
In 1984, a monument was erected at Jenny Wiley State Resort Park to honor those who died. More than 20 years later, another monument was placed at the foot of the Floyd County Courthouse in Prestonsburg.
Judge Marshall said recently that the process of getting a historic marker placed at the scene of the accident has already begun, and that it will be put in place as soon as possible.
Of the 49 people who went into the icy water on that tragic day 50 years ago, the following 27 did not survive:
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 Loaf
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, 27, 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
In a Times article which ran on May 14, after the recovery of the final body from the river, Allen concluded by saying, “Disaster-ridden Floyd County now lives with its memories.”
For many affected by the tragedy that befell 26 schoolchildren and their bus driver that day, the memories of 50 years ago seem like just yesterday, as they stood huddled together above the murky waters of the Big Sandy River, their sobs matched only by their prayers.