It’s been said that no matter how painful something is, if we lose our hope, that's our real disaster. Those words pale in comparison to the experience that the people of Floyd County, Kentucky went through on the cold and rainy Friday morning of February 28, 1958. The small community of Prestonsburg was waking up and tending to their usual tasks of breakfast, household chores, and preparing for work, when stunning news began to spread like a foggy shroud across the land. A school bus full of students had plunged into the freezing waters of the Big Sandy River.
Our family lived just a few miles north of Pikeville on Route 23, close to the historic Pauley Bridge. It didn’t take long for the news to reach Pike county, and I was at school when I heard the talk about students in Prestonsburg involved in a bus crash. At the age of seven I really couldn’t comprehend the severity of the incident, but there was no mistaking the faces of all the adults. Mullins School had a very uncharacteristic silence throughout the classrooms and hallways.
When I got home that day I saw that mom had the same somber look, and so did dad when he got home from work. Details were scarce about what happened, but I remember watching the news on TV that evening, because it was the first time I ever saw a local story on national TV. Mom and dad were virtually glued to the screen when the Huntley and Brinkley report showed film along with information about what happened. I didn’t hear much of what was said because I was watching pictures of the riverbank with people in their boats. Compounding the tragedy was the fact that the bus was still in the river and could not be located. People were dumbfounded that the river could swallow an entire school bus and not leave a clue as to where it was. The Big Sandy had certainly lived up to its name.
Our family was torn between going to the site and staying home. Everyone wanted to help, but no one wanted to get in the way of the rescue volunteers. My older sister Pam begged mom and dad to go to the site, and she had the added argument of taking sandwiches and other food to the volunteers. It was known that the area was seeking anyone with the proper equipment and supplies to help out, and dad did have the urge to go to the area to see if he could be of any help to the community. So, the next day mom and Pam prepared a variety of sandwiches and we drove to the site, which was on Route 23 about 3 miles south of Prestonsburg. When we came upon the scene there were cars lining both sides of the highway, and I’m not sure how far we walked to get to the spot where the bus actually went into the river.
The entire area was beyond belief. I had never seen such a crowd of people in one place. Despite the enormity of the gathering, the atmosphere was like a funeral. I didn’t realize so many people could be so quiet. The bus still hadn’t been located. Mom was close to tears at this point, and dad seemed overcome with sadness. I remember seeing lots of boats in the river, all different kinds because people who owned boats had brought them to help in the search. I also recall seeing a couple of men in the boats who were swinging large three-prong hooks over their heads and throwing them into the water, then pulling the hooks back and repeating the process over and over. I asked mom what they were doing and she begrudgingly told me. At that point mom was getting very concerned and nervous, because she was afraid that someone might recover a body while we were there. That was certainly the last thing she wanted us to witness. Therefore, she pressed dad to deliver the sandwiches so we could head home and get out of the way. Even though we were there for less than a half hour, it was a grim scene that remains vivid in my mind.
No one could make any sense of it, and an emotional numbness overtook the community. As the days passed painfully slow, progress was made and details were made public via the media. Forty-eight elementary and high school students were on the bus. Twenty-two escaped when it first hit the water, but 26 children and the driver drowned. It turned out the river had been over 20 feet above flood stage due to several days of rain prior to the accident. National Guardsmen from Lexington and Louisville and a half dozen other units from around the state were called out to help, and Navy divers were also there, but the swift muddy water, cold temperatures, and lack of proper equipment hampered efforts. The bus was finally located the following Sunday, more than 50 hours after the accident. Inside the bus were the bodies of 14 children and the driver, which were taken to a makeshift morgue in the nearby reserve armory where the agonizing task of identification started. Over the next few days there were 3 or 4 more bodies found miles down the river. No more bodies were found until April 8th, when receding waters and warmer temperatures caused them to float to the surface. The last victim was found 3 miles downriver on May 10, a full 72 days after the accident.
The investigative story that emerged revealed that after the children got on the bus it began to pull out and immediately had to round a curve to the right. A tow truck was pulling a vehicle out of a ditch so the bus driver veered to the left to avoid it. The bus apparently made contact with the rear-left of the truck, and was knocked to the left and unable to straighten out from the impact. Thus, it veered off the road and continued down the 80 foot embankment into the river. The family stories of the surviving students began to circulate too, as they related the distressing details of escaping the sinking bus, and their classmates who didn’t. There was an account of two boys who got out of the bus, only to realize their sisters were still inside. Both boys went back for their sisters and all subsequently drowned. One family lost three children. Another story that came to light was a father who walked his son across a swinging bridge to the bus stop, only to witness the bus going into the river while he was crossing the bridge back home. One volunteer recovered the body of his own son.
We also had family in Floyd county. Two of my cousins, Reginald “Rags” Rice and his brother Jerry were on the road to Prestonsburg that very morning and came upon the accident not more than 15 minutes after it happened. Rags recently told me that “Suddenly we saw people running, cars were honking and lined up on both sides of the road. Then a couple of cars with scared wet children passed by and we knew something serious had happened. Thinking about it can’t help but bring tears to your eyes. You can’t forget it.”
Governor “Happy” Chandler visited the site, as well as each of the families that were affected by the tragedy. People said that he was visibly tearful throughout much of his stay, but was thorough with meeting members of the National Guard, the citizen volunteers, and the clergy. Members of the National Guard were amazed at the cooperation and overall kindness of the victims' families and the community in general. Whenever someone needed food there was always enough to go around. Meals and supplies were provided without question. If there was any silver lining at all to the tragedy, it was the formation of the Floyd County Rescue Squad. In fact, it was organized in 1958 before the last student was recovered from the river. It has remained over the years as a completely nonprofit volunteer organization that assists local law enforcement, fire department, and EMS.
To this day I can’t pass by that old area of Route 23 without thinking of the tragic morning when 26 high school and grade school students drowned in the cold waters. Since the accident, there has never been another school bus number 27 in the Floyd County system. In a real sense the whole state and much of the entire country was on the bus that morning. That was the day innocence drowned beneath the Big Sandy River.