This story was originally published in the Herald-Leader on Feb. 24, 2008, a few days before the 50th anniversary of the crash.
PRESTONSBURG — Rebecca Jarrell holds a faded newspaper clipping of her only daughter delicately between her fingers. The headline reads: "22nd victim found."
Several more clippings are spread out around her on a worn kitchen table. The images are haunting: grief-stricken mothers huddled together on an Eastern Kentucky riverbank; a battered and mud-filled school bus lying on its side after it was pulled from the chilly waters; multiple rows of wooden coffins lined up in a temporary morgue at the local armory. Each wooden box held a child.
On Feb. 28, 1958, a Floyd County school bus plunged into the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River. Twenty-six children and the bus driver drowned in what remains the worst school bus accident in U.S. history.
As Jarrell, 85, looks back into the sleepless hell that was those days, tears roll down her cheeks. She can't remember much of that time, or the person she was before the river swallowed up her only children: Katie, 13, and Bucky Ray, 14.
She doesn't remember where Bucky Ray's body was recovered or how she felt when searchers finally found Katie weeks later.
Time has left a fog over those memories. It has turned Jarrell's hair a curly white, wrinkled her fair skin and left her alone in this 11-room house hidden among the heaven-touching trees deep in the mountains.
"Time may take away my memories," Jarrell says, barely above a whisper. "But it can't take away my pain. Even after all these years, it still hurts. It will always hurt."
Survivors and those who lost loved ones rarely mention what happened in 1958. They spend most days at home, passing one another at the post office or the grocery store. They sit together in church, bonded by their silent grief and heavy hearts.
But it is a story the whole town knows well. Pictures of those who drowned still hang in local restaurants, schoolhouses and funeral homes.
"People don't talk about it much. It's too painful to talk about," said Orville Ousley, 85, who lost one of his three sons in the accident. "When the anniversary comes each year, we avoid each other and we hide in our homes."
Still, Ousley said, he and the others don't want people to forget. They don't want the memories of their children, nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters to die with them.
Collision begins deadly sequence
The morning of Feb. 28 was cloudy and cold.
About 7 a.m., driver John Alex DeRossett, 27, began his usual route from the 75-family coal-mining town of Cow Creek to consolidated schools in Prestonsburg, stopping to collect students in Sugar Loaf and Emma.
Three miles east of Prestonsburg at the mouth of Knotley Hollow on old U.S. 23, DeRossett pulled off the road where two 14-year-old freshman girls, Ezelle Pennington and Joyce Matney, stood hugging their books and waiting with other students.
As the students climbed aboard, someone asked Joyce what her grandfather's pickup was doing "down there in the ditch line." About 200 yards down the highway, Banner Burchett's pickup was mired to its axles in the ditch alongside the road.
Burchett, a coal miner, was on his way to work when he realized he might have forgotten his miner's cap. As he reached across the seat searching for his carbide light, the right front wheel of his pickup dropped off the pavement, according to court records.
A wrecker driven by Donald "Dootney" Horn was maneuvering to pull the truck out of the ditch when the bus approached.
But for reasons no one has ever explained, DeRossett did not slow down. The bus struck the wrecker's left rear bumper and fender, knocking the truck more than 60 feet.
Students began screaming as the bus turned a hard left and started toward the river, striking a parked car and narrowly missing a trailer owned by Bennie Blackburn, a notorious bootlegger.
The bus lurched, swayed, tipped for a moment at the top of the embankment, and then slithered through a grove of willow trees into the river.
The water was usually no more than chest-high on a tall man, but days of rain and melting snow had left the muddy river swirling, rapids-fast and about 30 feet deep.
The bus hung for agonizing minutes in the water, bobbing on the muddy surface like a yellow fishing float.
DeRossett apparently was knocked unconscious. As water gushed in through the broken windshield, many children sat in stunned silence. Others cried out and leapt into the aisle.
Near the back of the bus, the freezing water closed around the waist of William Leedy, 13. He made his way to the rear emergency door and, after turning the handle, kicked it open, according to court records.
"I guess I was the first one to jump out in the water," Leedy told reporters after the accident. "It was so cold. I could hear others hitting the water after me."
Leedy, a strong swimmer, grabbed another boy, Jerry Leslie, by the shirt and pulled him to the riverbank.
"My strength was gone. I was numb with cold," said Leedy, who has since died of cancer. "I started back, but the swift water was rushing me downstream. Strands of long blond hair caught my eye but as I reached out grabbing for it, it slipped through my cold, numb fingers. The strong current took her from me."
According to testimony from survivors, Bucky Ray was in the back of the bus near Leedy. He got off the bus, but returned for his sister.
Survivors recalled hearing him yell her name: "Katie."
All over the bus, brothers and sisters were trying to find each other. Some reported seeing terrified children huddled together in the seats, hugging.
James Thomas Ousley, 15, also had a chance to jump off the bus. Instead, he was searching for his brother Dallas, 9. But Dallas — who was sitting near the back with his other brother Dennis, 13 — was already off the bus.
Bobbing in the river and grasping a limb of a swaying willow tree, Dallas listened as his brother called his name. But the boy's mouth was filled with water and he couldn't answer, his father, Orville Ousley, recalled in an interview last week.
"We took him to the Martin hospital afterward and they pumped so much muddy water out of his chest," Ousley said.
Witnesses said Horn, the wrecker driver, and Blackburn, the bootlegger, slid down the bank and helped save several children.
Some children let down the windows on the bus and squeezed through. Others fought through the crowded aisle; later they spoke of tiny hands and feet that tried to latch onto them as they jumped out the back door.
Twenty-one children made it safely to the bank before the heavy current swept the bus like a log into deeper water, and closed over the screams of the children trapped inside.
Most families did not have telephones, but word of the accident spread fast in coal-mining Floyd County, where sudden tragedy is familiar.
A neighbor who heard the news on the radio came running. "'They're all drowning,' she kept hollering," Ousley recalled.
The Ousleys and Jarrells got into an old Jeep and drove through the muddy hollows toward the river.
"We all thought there was something we might be able to do once we got there," Ousley said. "There wasn't."
In the communities around them, residents begged rides or ran through the mud to see which of their children would be coming home again.
The Jarrells soon discovered that neither of theirs would.
The bus had been carried across the river and about 250 feet downstream. It took Army engineers and volunteers 53 hours to find it.
When the bus was finally hooked, two tractors with winches brought it to land. Some of the thousands of onlookers climbed into treetops for a better look as the bodies were recovered.
James Thomas Ousley's body was removed first. He had been caught at the waist in a window frame as he tried to escape the watery grave.
The bodies of the driver and 14 children, including Bucky Ray, were found in the mud-filled bus. Twelve others — including Katie Jarrell — were still missing.
People searched in boats and on the riverbanks, using 88 million-candlepower searchlights at night. A hotel, just yards from the river, opened its doors for free to devastated families.
William 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 and he would not have stopped except the Ohio "was just so wide," he told the Herald-Leader in 1988. William Jarrell has been dead 10 years now.
It was 40 days before volunteers found Katie, seven miles downstream at Auxier, and 69 days before the last child, a 9-year-old girl, was found.
Along with the Jarrells, two other families lost all their children. In all, sixteen families were touched by the tragedy. The dead ranged in age from 8 to 17.
"It's the worst thing that's ever happened in Floyd County," said resident Tom Ed Music.
Only 18 at the time of the crash, Music helped search for the bodies, and later, while working for the funeral home, helped lay some of them to rest. When the last child was buried, Music left his job with the funeral home.
"It's something I would just like to put out of my mind," he said.
The cause of the crash remains a mystery. Witnesses still give conflicting accounts of what happened to the bus.
"I don't think anybody will ever know what really happened," Orville Ousley said.
Horn, who is now dead, said in 1958 that DeRossett "had good visibility and plenty of room to pull around me." He denied suggestions that he backed the wrecker into the approaching bus.
DeRossett was on schedule and his bus had been serviced just two days earlier, according to a March 1958 court inquiry.
But questions about mechanical problems involving the bus' steering and brakes were never answered because its front wheels were pulled off while it was being raised from the river. There were suggestions that DeRossett might have suffered a heart attack, but an autopsy found he drowned at the steering wheel.
No criminal charges or lawsuits were filed.
Several of the 21 survivors testified in the inquiry, as did two bystanders who were given lie-detector tests. A report filed by Floyd County Judge Henry Stumbo cleared the bus driver of allegations that he had been negligent or careless.
Many families moved
The years since the accident have changed Floyd County. Prestonsburg is thriving with dozens of chain restaurants and shops. Four-lane highways have replaced curvy, two-lane Old U.S. 23 as the major north-south route in Eastern Kentucky.
The hotel on the river is now overgrown with weeds, its remains barely visible from the road, now called Ky. 1428.
The people have changed, too.
School resumed weeks after the accident, but some children never rode a school bus again. At least one child, Winston Dillon, didn't go back to school.
"I just couldn't stand to see those empty seats," Dillon told reporters 10 years after the crash. "I had gone through grade school with most of those boys."
Hoping to put some distance between them and their memories, many families left.
"Our kids, they were the ones that wanted to go," said Ousley, who moved from Sugar Loaf to another part of the county. "There were only about two other kids left in the holler. All their friends drowned."
One thing has remained the same. "The hurt hasn't gotten any easier," said Ousley, who feels it most on his twice-weekly walks to his son's grave site.
More than half a dozen of the survivors contacted for this story declined to talk about that day. They each said it was just too hard.
"It's just a tragic time," said Jeff Gunnell, who was 14 at the time of the crash.
For Rebecca Jarrell, it's the little things — like dusting around her daughter's dolls — that cause her tears. She has never opened the two cedar chests in her attic that hold her children's clothes.
Jarrell wonders what Katie and Bucky Ray would look like today or what it would be like to have grandchildren.
It troubles her that she can't remember which room Bucky Ray slept in and which room was Katie's. She wishes she could recall the last words she had with her children.
"Time, it takes so much from us," she said quietly. "It's taken my kids and my husband. I wish it could take some of the pain."