The 1958 Bus Disaster: 50 Years Later - Part 1

An eastern Kentucky county is still haunted by a terrible school bus accident that happened 50 years ago.

On February 28th, 1958 at 8:10am, a school bus loaded with 48 elementary and high school students was headed to Prestonsburg on old route 23.

For reasons still uncertain to this day the driver did not see a tow truck in front of him that was getting ready to pull a vehicle out of a ditch, until it was too late and he crashed into it, crossed the road, sideswiped a parked car, then rolled down an embankment into the swollen and cold Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River.

Twenty-seven people, including the driver, died.

There were 22 other survivors.

Judge Executive Doc Marshall will never forget that day.

He was supposed to be on the bus, but it didn't make it to pick him up.

He knew everyone that died.

“It was just like they vanished that day,” Marshall said.

A few months ago, Marshall helped unveil a new monument to honor the victims in front of the old Floyd County Courthouse.

“When I look at these names, I put a picture, a face, an actual person,” Marshall said.

The road where the accident happened 50 years ago hasn't really changed that much with one big exception a guardrail wasn't there to prevent the bus from plunging into the river.

Eighty-five year old Rebecca Jarrell lost her only two children in the crash.

Bucky Ray was 15 and Katie Carol was 13.

“I never thought I'd live 50 years after they were gone, but the Lord let me stay here for some reason,” Jarrell said.

Jarrell says the accident nearly ended her life too.

“I thought well I'll just kill myself and get out of this but then the Lord was just right there in front of me and he said that's not the way out of it,” Jarrell said.

Jarrell says she often wondered why some children were spared, while hers didn't make it.

“Wasn't I the mother I should have been? I've questioned that. Was I the mother I should have been that I had to give my kids up, but i don't know. One thing's for sure… when I leave here I can go be with them,” Jarrell said.

The pain in Floyd County would continue.

Many survivors still don't want to talk about the crash to this day.
The bus was recovered from the river on March 2nd, several days after the accident.

Many of the bodies were still inside, but some floated away.

The last child wasn't found until May 10th, many weeks after the disaster.

“Our daughter, she was one of the last ones found. She was buried on our boy's birthday, 15th of April,” Jarrell said.

Jarrell says it meant a lot to see the new monument in Prestonsburg and she still hopes to see a historical marker put up at the site of the crash before she dies.

A memorial was also built in the mid 1990's at the Jenny Wiley State Park.

Ironically, the worst church bus accident in U.S. history also happened in Kentucky.

Nearly 20 years ago in May of 1988, twenty-seven people, the same number killed in the Floyd County accident, died when a drunk driver collided with the bus on interstate 71 in Carrollton.

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