Sunday, February 8, 2015

Spring City Tenn Bus/Train crash

Spring City, Tennessee Bus/Train Crash
August 1955

You'd think the concept of stopping at a railroad crossing and making absolutely sure a train isn't coming before you cross the tracks would be an absolute no-brainer. And you wouldn't think a law mandating that school bus drivers do just that would have to be passed. Stopping a bus full of kids (Or any vehicle for that matter.) at a railroad crossing and making sure it's safe to cross is about as common sense as you can get.

Sadly...and sometimes tragically...common sense is a virtue that some people just do not possess. So a law was indeed passed mandating that school buses absolutely would stop at grade crossings and the driver absolutely would stop, look and listen and take whatever steps might be needed to ensure that there was no train coming before he moved. And if there was a train coming, the driver would sure as hell sit there and wait for it to pass.

Why'd I feel the need to include that last sentence? The one about waiting for the train and not driving onto the tracks? Read on...we're going to take a quick look at the accident that caused that law to be passed in the first place,

We'll be heading to the east-central Tennessee town of Spring City, tucked up in the northeast corner of Rhea County on the shore of Watts Bar Lake, for this one, and while we're at it we're going back 59 years and change, to the 22nd of August, 1955. Back in the day, schools in Rural Tennessee counties started in early to mid August so the farm kids could be given a week-or-so-long break during the Harvest season (As a bonus, the town kids would score a week or so long early-in-the-year break out of it as well) so the 1955-56 school year in Rhea County had started a couple of weeks before that hot, partly cloudy Monday.  At 3PM the final bell echoed through the halls of Spring City Elementary School, and the doors exploded open, as the doors of schools are wont to do at the end of the day, with most of the kids heading up or down Hinch Street towards whichever cross street aimed them for home, while the 'Bus Children' headed for the inevitable row of yellow buses lined up in the school's driveway.

Kids climbed aboard, grabbed seats with their friends, and kid-like discussions ensued as the buses lumbered out of the school yard (Inevitably doing a little side to side shimmy as they passed over the gutter) and headed out of town. One of them,...a nearly new bus, it's yellow paint still shiny and unmarked by rock-chips...was driven by a farmer who'd taken on the job of driving the bus at the beginning of he school year. He turned left coming out of the school, then a couple of blocks south of the school hung a right on New Lake Road to head west, out of town on what was then Tennessee State Route 68. 

A map of Spring City, Tennessee, with the crossing where the accident occurred circled in red, The red square shows the location of the school. Map Courtesy of Google Maps

Satellite view if the area of the school and the crossing...I denoted the route the bus took from the school to show how close the crossing was to the school, and therefore how soon after this bus load of kids left school...cheerful, rambunctious, and happy that school was done for the day...the accident occurred. While that's the new school, of course, I have a sneaking suspicion that the driveway where I started the route is the original driveway.  If you look at the crossing, you can tell that the driver's sight-line was wide open and unobstructed...this is one time I'm pretty sure that the sight line has not changed significantly since the accident. Satellite Image Courtesy Google Maps

Heading West, State Route 68 crosses US's name changing to Piccadilly Ave as it does so...then about 100 or so feet further on crosses the Southern Railway tracks at a signal protected grade crossing. Sixty years ago the signals consisted of only lights and bells...the familiar alternating red lights and monotonous but attention-getting gong...and they started their warning flash and clang as the bus crossed U.S 27 on the green light. Some of the 47 kids on board stopped chattering and gossiping as they heard a train blowing for the crossing through the bus' open windows. A couple of them may have glanced out of the windows on the right side of the bus, towards Spring City's historic train station, to see a long freight headed by a a pair of double headed diesel locomotives crossing Jackson Avenue, about 800 or so feet distant, and coming up on the train station.

They, as well as the train's engineer, expected the bus to ease to a stop short of the crossing. They did not expect him to punch it...keep in mind here that 'punching it' has little to no actual effect on a loaded school bus, especially one from that era. A couple of the kids yelled 'There's a train coming!!!' at the driver, to have him tell them that he could make it across with room to spare...

The train's engineer could only watch in horrified disbelief as the driver trundled onto the tracks...he slammed the brakes into full emergency even though he knew it was hopeless, and the train was sliding and still moving at about 45MPH when the lead locomotive tore into the rear half of the bus with a thunderous 'CRWUMP!!, ripping the bus wide open. The bus spun violently to the left, taking out the signals on the west side of the tracks and tossing kids clear as it did so.

Crossing US 27 on Tennessee 68 (Now Business 68) approaching the crossing today. The bus was about at this point when the crossing signals activated...back in 1955 they consisted of bells and lights, without gates, not that that should have made any difference..While the buildings have probably changed a good bit, the sight line itself is pretty much the same. Did I mention the sightline? Go to the next two pics...  Image Courtesy Google Maps Street View

Looking East from the middle of the US-27/Tennessee 68 Intersection..As I noted, this is one time I can be almost positive that the sight-line in 1955 and the sight-line today are virtually identical. The white building right center is Spring City's RR a museum...and it was on the Front Street side of the tracks, so it wouldn't have obstructed view of the train.. The kids...and most likely the driver...noticed the train, I'm guessing, in the far right center of the pic, above the orange arrow, if not a little further east than that.

Coming up to the crossing, looking other words where the driver should have been easing to a stop as the train thundered past the railroad station. Instead, the driver had his foot in it, the kids were screaming that a train was coming, and the train's engineer was trying desperately to pull the brake lever into another notch past EMERGENCY. Again, note the completely unobstructed sight-line. The train would have been clearly visible to the driver. Image Courtesy Google Maps Street View

The bus threw a wave of broken pavement and top soil aside as it spun and tumbled to a stop about 100 feet away from the crossing, the train's brakes screaming in protest in the background, the screeching of sliding steel wheels finally fading out as the train slid to a stop, leaving only the screaming of injured children and the eerie 'DING-DING-DING-DING' of the bell on the one still standing set of signals.

The crash had happened dead in the middle of town, two blocks from the school and 100 feet from Front Street, Spring City's main business street, which runs parallel to and on the opposite side of the tracks from US. 27. Dozens of people had either seen or heard the devastating crash. Dozens of citizens ran to the scene almost before the dust stopped settling to find a scene of devastation, the town's fire siren winding up in the background as if to confirm what they were seeing.. Ten kids, all probably seated in the rear of the bus and all ejected, were killed instantly, another died later at the hospital in Rockwood. Two sets of siblings...two pairs of brothers...were among the dead.  About half of the 47 kids on board had been seated towards the front of the bus, and had ridden the shattered vehicle as it rolled, and several of them were trapped..

This was fifteen years before anything even vaguely resembling true prehospital care existed and was deeply into the 'Ambulance with a big engine/driver with a heavy foot' era of prehospital patient care. Help was requested from a dozen neighboring towns as the volunteer fire fighters and rescue squad members and townspeople on scene did what they could do, actually triaging the patients, separating the injured from the obviously dead, then separating the kids who had been seriously injured form those who were, miraculously, walking wounded. 

This was also a couple of decades before such now-univesal devices as the jaw of Life, were standard equipment for fire departments, and disentangling the kids trapped aboard the mangled bus involved hand tools, come-alongs, lots of elbow grease, and, for the heaviest work, very possibly a wrecker tearing the wreckage apart.

There were a couple of miracles that afternoon. One store owner who had two kids on the bus saw the collision...actually watched the bus roll onto the tracks, knowing it was going to get hit...and ran towards the scene to see both of his sons, both all but uninjured, running towards him. A few other kids climbed out of the twisted remains of the bus with little more than cuts and bruises. But most were either dead or badly injured, and several citizens took matters into their own hands, loading the injured into private cars and heading for hospitals in Dayton (16 miles), Rockwood (16 Miles) Crossville (24 Miles) and even Chattanooga, a good hour and a half and 80 miles distant. I shudder to think of seriously injured trauma patients being removed from a wrecked vehicle and transported with absolutely no spinal immobilization what so ever, but it worked...most of the injured kids recovered.

The parents...with the exception of a few who worked in town and lived outside of town...were almost all farm families, and moms and dads grew impatient, then worried as the bus first didn't show up at the usual time, then never showed up at all. Some got phone calls, others headed into town to see why the bus was late, then ran up on the accident, understandably freaking out when they recognized their childrens' bus. Most had no idea what had happened to their kids, or where they had been taken, or if they were even alive. Parents first searched the makeshift morgue where the bodies had been taken, praying that they wouldn't find their children there. Some of the bodies were mangled all but beyond identification and had to be identified through the clothes they were parent should ever have to suffer through anything in the same zip code as having to do that. 

If they didn't find their kids there, they then made a loop of the hospitals searching for their children, their nerves singing like overstretched guitar strings on the long rides as they prayed for their kids safe return home. Several sets of parents experienced the miracle I noted above...thirty one kids were either killed or hospitalized, leaving 16 of the 47 on board relatively uninjured (Probably all in the front end of the bus) so their parents found their kids wandering around the scene, or were told that they had been taken home. 

The bus driver, who was all but uninjured, started damage control almost before the bus stopped tumbling. He swore down that he stopped the bus, that several box cars on a near-by siding blocked his view of the train, that the signals weren't working, and that the train never blew its horn. And he was instantly outed by several of the kids who had been on the bus and several witnesses who had watched the collision. On top of that, everyone on the scene had heard that insistent clanging of the crossing bell, still ringing because the train was still blocking the crossing.

He was charged with manslaughter and released on bond, but had to be placed in protective custody and taken to another town when threats of enacting a bit of street justice on him were made. He was ultimately tried, found guilty, and received, I believe, a year in jail. He had apparently not wanted to wait the three or so minutes that it would have taken for the train to clear the crossing.

Let me reiterate, here...this was not a case of him stopping and not seeing the train. It wasn't a case of the crossing signals being inoperative and him driving across thinking the way was clear. He saw the train coming, heard the horn, saw and heard the crossing signals, then decided that he didn't want to wait and that he'd try and beat the train...while driving a bus loaded with kids.

Tennessee Governor Frank Clement was not amused...he traveled from Nashville to Spring City and gave an address at the Spring City railroad depot, promising an in-depth investigation into what happened, and to see that nothing like the bus accident ever happened again. While in the area, he also visited each and every child who was still hospitalized.

Crowd listening to then-Governor Frank Clements at Spring City's Railroad Station.

He went back to Nashville, and in the meantime several women, all members of the Spring City PTA and several of them parents of kids who were killed or injured in the accident, met several times over coffee, but the latest town gossip wasn't the subject of discussion. A lawyer helped the group with a rough draft of a bill that, if made into law, would require every school bus in Tennessee to, while transporting children, stop at all railroad crossings, and for the driver to actively look and listen for a train and not proceed until the way was safe.

They met with the members of the state legislature, who looked at the rough draft of the law and were duly impressed with the work done by the ladies. The law not only passed, but was probably one of the most quickly passed and enacted laws in Tennessee history, going into effect with-in a month of the meeting with the mothers of Spring City.. It became a model for other states, and within a year all (Then) forty-eight states had passed their own version of it.

The citizens of Spring City as well as school and city leaders felt that a memorial was needed to honor both the kids who had lost their lives in the crash and the women who had worked so diligently to get the new law passed, so a Memorial Fountain was erected and dedicated at Spring City Elementary, where it stood for nearly fifty years until the school was completely refurbished. The fountain was destroyed during the building's reconstruction. (And a large part of me says 'Really? Really people??? Ya couldn't have included the memorial in the plans???) 

Spring City's Memorial, dedicated both to the kids who lost their lives in the accident and the ladies of Spring City who draft the law requiring all school buses to stop at all railroad crossings

A new and slightly larger memorial was erected on the south lawn of the city's beautifully restored train station, and dedicated on the 50th anniversary of the crash. Somehow this location does seems a bit more appropriate, sitting with-in sight of the crossing where the accident happened, serving as both a memorial and a reminder.

While every state in the nation passed a law requiring school bus drivers to Stop, Look and Listen, it took more that a decade for the law to become Federally mandated (IE, Federal law mandates that each state must have such a law on the books and actively enforced.)

<***>Links, Notes, And Stuff<***>

The other posts in this series
in the order they were posted.

December 1961

March 1972

October 1971

August 1976  Conasauga Tenn.  March 2000   Sandy, Utah Dec 1938  Proberta, California Nov 1921  Shreve and Berea Ohio Jan. 1930  Crescent City, Florida December 1933  Rockville, Maryland April 1935  MAson City, Iowa Oct. 1937 Eads, Tennessee Oct. 1941


As just about always happens small towns, everyone pulled together in both the immediate and distant aftermath of the accident.  For example, the entire line-ups of both the Spring City and Rockwood High football teams...likely blood rivals on the gridiron back in the well as many other citizens donated blood, while others lent support to the families of the victims in every way possible. This same attitude prevailed when the ladies of Spring City pushed the bill requiring school buses to stop at all railroad crossings through.


Along with all of the other support he gave to the families whose kids were on the bus, Governor Clement made a THP patrol car and driver available to each family who lost a child in the accident for some time both before and after the accident. The man, from all indications, was truly a class act.


In the Evan Bus Crash post, I touched on the how the 'Suck it up and move on with your life' attitude towards tragedy that prevailed during that era, as well as the the lack of counseling for the crash victims and survivors, caused them to be even further traumatized, but there is another group of victims of emotional trauma I only mentioned briefly...the Firefighters and Police Officers that respond to a horrific incident such as a school bus-train collision. The horror of critically injured and dead children is devastating enough as it is, and it's essential that first responders be able to separate their actions from their emotions in order to function at the scene..the after effects, however, can be debilitating. 

Now...make the scene of the accident a very small town, and the crews of the first in rigs members of the town's volunteer fire company, and you increase the horror factor ten-fold for those first responders because it's almost a sure bet that they'll know the kids on that bus, or even worse, their own children will be aboard.  The trauma actually starts as soon as the tones hit and the dispatcher announces the type and location of the call  (Or, back in 1955, the siren went off, and the guys got to the station and were told what they had ...of course in Spring City's case the accident was smack dab in the middle of town , so many of the guys knew what they had before the rigs even responded).

Hearing '...For a school bus hit by a train' can cause the strongest man to break out in a cold sweat, especially if the crossing they're being dispatched to is one his or her child's bus has to cross.   Rolling in on a bus-train accident (Or any major school bus accident), and the first patient you get to being a gravely injured child you've known since they were in diapers, who's parents you've known since your own childhood, is one of those things guaranteed to change you in ways that'll keep you awake at night.  If the gravely injured child is your own child (Or  a beloved niece or nephew), you feel your heart shatter in a way that'll never be whole again. It's a feeling that I've never had to experience, hope I never do experience (I'm single, childless, and verging on ancient, but I have a nine year old grand niece who I love like my own child), and that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. It would be absolutely devastating today with all of the counseling that's available to first responders.  Now imagine having to deal with working your own badly injured child, and being told afterward to just get on with your life.

While it wasn't mentioned in any of the sources I used for this post, I can just about bet that every member of Spring City VFD knew at least a couple of the kids on that bus, and it's very possible...even probable...that a couple of them had kids that were on it..  And I can guarantee you that the call changed every one of them...even if they didn't realize it.    

<***>Links<***>   An article about the crash from the Rhea County High School student newsletter...The Eagles Nest. While you're at it check out The Eagles Nest itself...the kids do an awesome job with it!

Article form the Dayton, Tenn/Rhea County Herald-News, published on the 50th anniversary of the accident.   Find-a-grave listing for the victims of the accident, with the names of all 11 of the kids who lost their lives. They included three sets of siblings.



  1. Yeah I completely agree that that call changed every one of them. One of my friends kids were in that bus and that single call changed him. Earlier he was working with a Los Angeles DUI attorney and was so devastated that he left his job. Since then, he started dropping his other kid by their own car every day.

  2. I live in a town just across the lake from where this happened, and had no idea this had happened. Also, the article mentions US highway 29, but it is actually US highway 27.

  3. This is my home town I was six years old later I married one of survivors Wanda Crisp from the bus disaster

  4. Hello my name is Brian. Trunah was my wife of 31 years who passed away this year. Thank you for an accurate write up on this horrible accident. My wife's grandfather was the engineer of that train. Something you may not know is that even with the clanging bells, the horn, the kids yelling at the driver that he couldn't make it a train was coming and witnesses to it all...her grandfather was also arrested along with the bus driver and charged with manslaughter.

    Of course the truth was born out and he was released. These days its well known it is never the trains fault but back then I guess it wasn't. Also know that even so my wife spoke about her grandfather to me over our years. He was a kind and gentle man. Caring. And this accident and the images of that day hurt him greatly. He never got over it fully. I can only imagine how horrible it was for everyone that day.