The day had begun with so much hope. Spring was just around the corner as the yellow school bus picked up its last student and was headed to the Prestonsburg Elementary and High School three miles away. It was 8:10 a.m., and US 23 had its usual amount of traffic.
It was typical for mountain towns in Kentucky to have to deal with heavy winter rain and melting snow in late February. It was nothing unusual for the Big Sandy that flowed alongside the roadway, to be well above flood stage. On this 28th day of February the Big Sandy was 20 feet above its normal depth of 10 feet. In fact thirteen months before, the entire downtown had flooded, closing much of it for several weeks.
As the school bus with its 48 kids on board, rounded a slight bend in the road, a 1953 Ford wrecker traveling in the same direction, signaled that it was preparing to stop to aid a car sitting in a ditch well off the side of the road.
By now the bus was clipping along at 40 miles-per-hour, and driver John DeRos-sett was chatting with one of the boys sitting behind him while two of the older students were standing near him, one in the stairwell near the door.
In a matter of seconds the world would change for many families in Floyd County, and 63 years later Prestonsburg, Kentucky, has still not forgotten that cold winter day.
Even though Donald Horn’s wrecker had done everything possible to let the school bus know he was stopping, the bus without breaking, slammed into the left real fender knocking it more than 60 feet forward. Still not breaking, the big bus veered across Hwy. 23, hitting a parked car near a mobile home and pump house. With no brake lights seen by a handful of eyewitnesses up to this point, the bus seemed to have another opportunity to stop.
Teetering for a few seconds at the edge of the road and riverbank, the school bus, with all of its school kids, began to slowly roll forward. Picking up speed
quickly the bus reached a flattened out sport at the edge of the river. Witnesses watching it all offered later here was another chance for the bus to stop. Again, the brake lights were never seen.
School bus number 27 had traveled 83 feel down the riverbank and into the icy Big Sandy River where a savage current quickly sucked the bus completely into its 30-foot depth, and with it 47 kids and it’s 27-year-old driver.
It took all of one minute for the bus to slowly travel across the roadway, strike an-other vehicle, roll 83-feet downhill into the water.
Eyewitnesses were seemingly paralyzed.
Bennie Blackburn, a well-known Floyd County bootlegger, lived in the trailer nar-rowly missed by the bus, was the first to leap into the river’s edge. It was report-ed he saved several lives and his wife brought them into their trailer for warmth and dry clothes. Others did all they could to help, but the swift current was too much and quickly the bus disappeared.
In less than twenty minutes local Prestonsburg businessman Harry Rainer a building contractor, was at the river’s bank. He brought with him five bulldozers, two lowboys, three oversized trucks, several two-way radios and 45 men. The 41-year-old Rainer owned a pipe line contracting business and local automobile dealership. With several hundred men in his employment he was there to do what he could. He quickly cleared a roadway down to the river’s edge and some fifty-three hours later he pulled the bus out.
The horror of school kids of all ages clinging to tree branches before being quick-ly swept away by the swift current was enough to paralyze the few standing on the roadway. Some said they would never forget the little hands reaching through the partially open windows for help that wasn’t there.
Bad news, for some reason, seems to travel faster than good news, and soon some 3,000 people lined the Big Sandy riverbank. Everybody, it seemed, in Floyd County knew everybody and many were there to support and help anyway they could. Others were there to see if their children were okay.
Draglines and nets were quickly tossed into the river downstream in an attempt to snag the bus and any of the children who had escaped.
Several families were wiped out. “All we have is gone,” said one mother. “They certainly were little jewels to us,” said Mrs. James Goble, a teacher in the nearby settlement of Cow Creek.
The next day Gov. Happy Chandler arrived as did officials from throughout Ken-tucky.
The accident stirred the nation. Every newspaper covered the tragedy as did major magazines including Life Magazine, at the time considered number one. For days newspapers gave a continuous update of the recovery effort. Dona-tions rolled in from throughout the United States and several foreign countries.
Suddenly every family in Kentucky who had kids riding school busses were tak-ing notice of their safety.
In 1958, I had never heard of Prestonsburg, Kentucky. My world was where I lived . . . in Elizabethtown. But that was about to change. Everyone suddenly became aware of the tragedy in the mountains. Although I didn’t ride a school bus daily, I did ride one with our high school basketball team to away games.
Many parents, including mine, questioned the safety of these trips. Some even followed the bus in their cars. I was allowed to go by bus, and as a freshman and B-team player, I sat in the rear, thankful I was near the emergency door. For several days all we talked about on those long rides to another town was what happened in Prestonsburg.
It wasn’t until May 10, sixty-nine days after the school bus drove into the Big Sandy River, that the last of the 27 bodies were found three miles downstream.
It had become the worst school bus accident in the country. On May 4, 1988, the Carrollton, Kentucky church bus wreck took the lives of 24 kids and three adults.
Monuments and signage make sure those who died are not forgotten. Pres-tonsburg was never the same.
Donald Horn, whose wrecker was slammed into on that February day in 1958 never forgot.
“Every time I close my eyes I can see the faces of those little children wedged in-to the emergency door of the bus and hear them screaming for help,” he told a reporter.
There’s no excuse, get up, get out and get going!
Gary P. West can be reached at email@example.com