Monday, March 21, 2016

Eads Tennessee Train/School Bus Crash Oct 1941

Eads Tennessee Train/School Bus Crash Oct 1941

Some accidents just defy explanation. Oh, the root cause...say, 'Driver of bus drove onto an active railroad-highway grade crossing in front of an oncoming train'...may be as obvious as sand on a beach, but the reason said driver drove onto that crossing may be an ongoing mystery that may never be solved.

Several, if not most, of the accidents I've covered in this series of posts fall under that very heading. The driver, if he survived the accident, may offer a reason that he didn't stop, but the parents of the kids involved, the investigating officials, and the general public at large may just look askance at that reason and say ' way you didn't see the train' and assign their own reason...carelessness, impatience, apathy, some combination of the the accident. This opinion then becomes the official unofficial reason the accident happened. Note here I specified reason that the accident happened. For our purposes here, there's a subtle difference between 'Cause' and 'Reason'. The 'Cause' is the official, physical action, along with contributing or mitigating factors, that resulted in the accident happening. The reason however digs a little involves the mindset of the person primarily responsible for the accident in the first place.

Every once in a while, the reason an accident happens is so obvious that it jumps out and punches you. Two train-bus crashes, fifty years apart and both also in Tennessee... Conasauga, Tennessee, and Spring City Tennessee...come immediately to mind. Both of those drivers intentionally ignored laws in order to save time, and as a result children died and both drivers saw the insides of jail cells.

Fox River Grove Illinois on the other end of the scale, was a true and tragic if entirely avoidable accident, but also had both an immediately obvious cause, and an almost equally obvious reason for that cause to be able to exist in the first place.

The drivers in those three accidents all survived and were therefore able to offer their own reasons for the accident happening, as improbable as those reasons may have been. If, however, the driver dies in the accident, forever taking his thoughts and reasonings with him, and there are no known mitigating circumstances that could have prevented him from seeing the on-coming train or even stopping at the crossing, you just might have a true mystery on your hands. While I've already posted about a couple of these...Proberta,California and Mason City Iowa come immediately to mind...the accident I'm posting about in this article just may be the most mystifying one of the bunch.

We're heading back to October 1941, to the then extremely rural southwestern corner of Tennessee... Whoa Rob, I hear ya're talking about Memphis. Memphis basically is the southwest corner of Tennessee, and, even 74 years ago, there wasn't a whole lot rural about Memphis...

Chill, gang...I'm talking about the county that calls 'The Blues City' it's county seat...Shelby County, which was, indeed, very rural back then. Now, today, Memphis takes up the entire southwestern quadrant of the county, with a narrow eastward-pointing finger of the city actually splitting the east end of the county in two, while several small cities further divide those two halves of the eastern and northern portions of the county into even smaller chunks of rural forest, farmland and small incorporated communities. Really, look below, on the right, at a map of present day Shelby County...there isn't a whole lot of truly rural area left. Now, look below, left ,at a map of Shelby County from 1941...

To see just how much more rural Shelby County was back in 1941 than it is today, take a look at this side by side comparison.  I grabbed the Wikipedia map showing the cities of Shelby County, looked up a map of Memphis from 1941 (1940 was the closest I could find) as well as a map of annexations over the years (Memphis went on an annexation binge starting in 1944 or so and ending in the last decade and a half.) and made a quick and approximate schematic of Shelby County 1941 vs Shelby County today.

While I had to guess at both circa 1941 Memphis' exact location on Shelby County's western border and 1941 locations with-in the county for the other six then-tiny towns, this little schematic still gets the point I wanted to make across. In 1941, Shelby County was almost all rural land. All of the towns, with the exception, of course, of Memphis, had populations of under 1000 back in '41, with several miles of farmland and woods separating them. Eads was surrounded by miles of rural farmland and woods on all sides.

 Today, Memphis, Germantown and Collierville are contiguous as are Memphis, Bartlett, Lakeland, and Arlington. Eads, while it still has a good bit of unincorporated land to the west and south, is hard by that narrow eastward-pointing finger of Memphis, and is on the far eastern side of an island of unincorporated land with cities on three sides.

 ...And you can see that, back in 1941, Memphis was way smaller, both population and area-wise. Also, all of those small cities were tiny towns boasting between 400 and 1000 or so people back then, and most of the county was made up of rural farmland and woods with a few unincorporated  rural communities scattered around. One of those tiny rural communities is still to this day unincorporated, unannexed by Memphis, and almost as rural as it was in 1941. And that tiny community, situated hard by the Shelby County-Fayette County line in the far east central end of Shelby County, is Eads, Tennessee.

 If you were able to also look at two maps of from 1941, and one from today...side by side it'd take you just about two seconds flat to realize that the street layout hasn't changed at all in the last 74 years and change. I-269 has been added on the western edge of the village, of course, and the main roads have been widened and marked, and most importantly for our story, the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St Louis Railroad's tracks are long gone, but a resident who moved away as a child in 1941 could very likely return as a senior citizen today and find their way around with no problem at all.

If you got rid of I-269, and made US-64/Tenn. 15 a two lane road, this map of Eads would look almost exactly like a map of Eads from 1941. complete with SR 205 (Arlington.Collierville Rd) wiggling through the village in a torturous set of 90 degree curves. Seward Rd also follows the exact same alignment as it did in 1941, and while the rail line is gone, the right of way is still there, running between Washington Street and Seward Road.

 Then as now, the village consisted of a post office, a couple of churches, and a number of houses. It also very likely boasted a few more businesses back in 1941 than it does now. To get there from Memphis, you jump on US 79 in the center of Memphis, then hang a right on U.S. 64/Tennessee Rt 15 and drive due east for just about 20 miles, until you go under I-269.  A tenth of a mile or so after you go under the interstate you'll hang another right onto State Route 205, also known as Collierville-Arlington Road. You drive south on S.R 205 for a half mile or so, until it heaves itself around in a sharp 90 degree curve to the left and becomes Washington Street. Immediately after you come out of that curve SR 205 again branches off to the right...south...but for now we're going to ignore S.R.205 and stay on Washington Street. You're now in the tiny and pretty community of Eads. Pretty. Peaceful...the kind of community where chirping birds and the occasional barking dog are very likely far more prevalent than traffic, even with I-269 close by.

Now we're gonna take a quick tour of Eads. The old Post Office, though now replaced by a modern building at Washington and Jefferson Streets, is still there and it looks like several former stores on this same stretch of Washington Street are now private homes. A couple of newer businesses have been added and a small civic center sits on the south side of Washington Street, at the intersection of State Route 205 and Washington, riding point on a huge open lot that you just know has played host to more than a few pick-up base ball and touch football games.

 A hundred yards or so beyond the Civic Center, Washington Street 'T's into Jefferson Road, right in front of the new Post Office. Hang a right on Jefferson, go about 150 or so feet south, then hang a left back onto Washington Street and head east. Note that you are paralleling a long narrow strip of cleared land that is all but obviously an abandoned railroad right-of-way...the former right of way of the aforementioned Nashville, Chattanooga, and St Louis Railroad.

Another road parallels Washington Street on the other side of the old right-of-way...that's Seward Road. Keep driving east on Washigton Street and you'll reach a road branching off to the right, connecting Washington Street and Seward Rd. Stop here a minute and look around. Diagonally across Washington Street, to your left, there's a small cemetery, one that was there 74 years ago...keep that cemetery in mind. It has a heart-rending story to tell.

Now...hang a right on to the connecting road, stop on the old crossing, then look to your left. Seward road climbs a hill and then disappears around a sharp curve to the right.  A driver on Seward who was approaching Eads and wanted to cross the tracks would come around that curve, the left for him...then come down the hill and hang a sharp right onto the connecting road to do so. Pay particularly close attention to this intersection. This is where our story ends

To your right as you sit on the old crossing, Seward Rd, as noted, parallels both the old Railroad right of way and Washington Street before intersecting with that southward-continuation of SR 205, AKA Collierville-Arlington Rd, right in the middle of yet another 90 degree curve. If you hang that right off of the connector road onto Seward Rd, then jog slightly to the left onto SR 205, go back under I-269, and continue onward for a few winding miles you'll reach George R James Road. Immediately south of that intersection, to the left, is a modern athletic complex. This was, until 1974, the site of George R James Elementary School...and that's where our story begins.

Modern satellite view of Eads, with the location of the accident crossing circled in red, the bus' route up Seward Rd denoted by blue dashes, and the old N,C, and St L Railroad right-of-way denoted by red dashes. While the track had been gone for decades, the roadbed still exists  and is easy to pick out.

Satellite view of the accident site, showing the direction of travel of both the train and bus. After getting hit, the bus probably ended up in a brier patch at the edge of the woods on the south side of Seward Rd. It ended up 90 feet from the crossing, which would have put it probably just below the 'gh' in right-of-way. Townspeople had to hack a path through the briers to get to the kids still trapped on the bus and bring them out. Only the fact that a passenger aboard the train crimped the leaking fuel line and disconnected the battery, preventing the bus from lighting off with the trapped kids still on board,  kept the tragedy from being even worse than it already was

 Eads' cemetery, where Melvin Richmond was buried, is also indicated. The cemetery was not only with-in rock-throwing distance of the accident scene, it was almost visible from his parents' house, which. I believe, was just west of the crossing on Seward Road

October 10th 1941. WWII was well under deadly and bloody way in Europe, and the US was just under two months away from being suddenly and brutally dragged headlong into that deadliest of all wars, But to the kids erupting from the exits of George R James Elementary as the last bell rang, this was just a warm, lovely October Friday. They had the weekend stretching out ahead of them, the Mid-South Fair was open in Memphis, and several of the kids planned on attending if they could get their parents in on the plan, as said parents were essential to said plan...they'd be needed to either chauffer or chaperone (Depending on mode of car or bus) as well as to handle ride-food-souvenir financing duties.

As the kids living in and around Eads climbed aboard the bus that Benjamin Priddy had driven on this same route for the past fifteen years and grabbed seats, one little girl propped her arm...encased in a cast...on one of the seats so a couple of her friends could sign it. As the group of giggling girls brainstormed witty slogans to decorate their friend's cast with  two of the older boys...11 year old Melvin Richmond and his older brother Tom...were hatching a plot to get a couple of girls that they liked to go with them to the fair. It would require lengthy discussion, finesse, persuasion and would likely involve flirting and an abundance of giggling from the young ladies...and they would likely not be able to pull it off before they got off of the bus.

The solution to this problem was simple. The Richmond brothers lived on Seward Rd in Eads, probably near SR 205, and usually got off of the bus at their house, but today, to buy themselves a bit more time, they told Priddy that they'd stay on the bus all the way up Seward Road to the Fayette County line, where Priddy would turn around, then get off in Eads on the way back through and walk across the tracks to get home. With any luck, that'd give them plenty of time to convince the girls to go to the fair with them.

So as Priddy dropped the bus into gear, let off the clutch, pulled out of the school and hung a left onto Collierville-Arlington Road, The Richmond brothers put their plan in motion as the rest of the kids on board the bus engaged in the very same energetic conversation and horseplay that has started the instant that final bell rings on countless Friday afternoons in countless schools for countless decades. 

The bus was packed when it left GEJ Elementary, but Priddy started dropping kids off within a mile or so of the school, so when he went through Eads the first time...when the Richmond brothers would have normally gotten off...he was down to twenty-five or so kids aboard the bus.

OK, I'm having to guess a bit here, but I'm pretty sure the bus stayed on Seward Road as it went through Eads the first time, probably dropping any kids who lived on the Seward Road side of Eads off on the way through. The Richmond boys usually got off then, but on this fateful Friday afternoon they stayed on for the entire trip to try and convince the girls to go with them to the fair. Priddy then dropped kids off all the way up Seward Road, turned around at the Shelby County-Fayette County line and crossed the tracks on his way back through Eads so he could drop all of the rest of the kids who lived there off at some central point in the village.  It had to be something like that, because if all of the kids living in Eads had gotten off the bus on that first trip through town, the accident featured in this post never would have happened.

One thing that is pretty certain Priddy turned the bus around and headed back towards Eads, a N, C, and St L passenger train, bound for Memphis and running twenty or so minutes late, was only a couple of miles out of Eads, rumbling west at about 50MPH with veteran engineer Joe Darnell at the throttle.

As Priddy approached Eads on Seward Road, he was heading just about due north, staring at a heavy tree-line that, in early October, probably still did a pretty good job of hiding the tracks. The kids were still talking, cutting up and generally being kids, paying attention to their surroundings just enough to know how close they were to being released from scholastic servitude for the weekend. The Richmond boys had either found success or been blown off, and Priddy, as he'd done thousands of times before, slowed and steered the bus into the sharp left-hand curve that swung Seward Road parallel to the tracks. He made it around the curve just fine, but somewhere in the hundred or so yards between the curve and the crossing something happened. I'm gonna have to do some guessing and speculating here, especially with the tracks long gone, and the ICC report on the accident as long gone as the tracks...
Normally the 'whistle post' for a railroad grade crossing is, give or take a few dozen feet, around 1500 feet from the crossing...about twenty seconds away from it at 50 MPH. That'd make it no stretch at all to surmise that Joe Darnell started yanking his locomotive's whistle lanyard in the time honored long-long-short-long crossing signal even as or maybe very slightly before Priddy swung his bus into that first ninety degree turn. And, it being warm, some if not most of the bus windows were probably open, so it's a pretty good good bet that at least some some of the kids on the bus heard it and that, just maybe, Priddy did as well. But we'll never know for sure.

As you come out of that curve today, that tree line I mentioned above is to your right just as it would have been in 1941, and I'm going to assume here that the same trees and undergrowth were there 74 years back. The tree line extended about halfway or so to the crossing, and would effectively hide the for Priddy, as he cleared the tree line the train would still be behind him, to his right, somewhere between 750 feet and 1000 feet away.

To put the following series of 'Driver's Eye Views in perspective, here's a shot sitting on the connector Rd, looking east up the old N. C. And St L. Rail Road bed, with Seward Rd parallel to the R.R. bed on the right and Washington Street, ditto, on the left. The bus would have come around the 90 degree curve visible to the right of the old roadbed, just to the right of mid-frame, then come down the hill approaching the crossing and turned right onto the connector road.

Look on the left side of the frame, beneath the 'CURVE' sign, and you can see the fence surrounding Eads Cemetery, where Melvin Richmond is buried.
Drivers eye view approaching the 90 degree curve that would swing Seward Rd parallel to the tracks for that last 200 or so feet before it reached the connector rd and crossing. I have a feeling this view hasn't changed too much in 75 years, other than the road being wider and marked.

The train was still 750-1000 feet away from them, to their right, at this point and, even if some of the kids had turned around and looked back,  trees would have still blocked any possibility of them seeing it's smoke column approaching from the right. Priddy couldn't have seen it from this point until he turned onto the connector road, because the interior of the bus itself would have completely blocked his view.

And, yep, I know it's from the wrong lane...the 'Google Street View' car was heading away from Eads when this series of street view were shot.

Coming out of the 90 degree curve, with the former crossing site visible and indicated, just to the right of mid frame While I'm not sure if the tree-line extended that far towards the crossing back then, I have a feeling that this view's still fairly close to the way it was set up in 1941 The trees would still be blocking the view for any of the kids who looked back towards the direction the train was approaching from, but engineer Joe Darnell would have been blowing the crossing warning (Long-long-short- long)  coming up on the crossing. Engineers usually blow the crossing warning at least two to three times between the whistle post and the crossing, and the bus windows were probably open, so depending on how much noise the bus engine, road noise, wind, and kids were making, the kids and Priddy might have heard it

They reached the connector road that would take them across the Priddy would obviously have to turn onto the road in order to look to his right and and check for a train, so as he started his turn, the kids weren't concerned at first, even though by then they could easily hear the train's whistle, and very possibly the iconic puffing roar of a big steam locomotive pulling a train at speed. A couple of them may even have looked back as they turned to catch fleeting glimpses of the locomotive through the trees, and I can just about guarantee they could see the moving smoke-column punching skyward.

As they made the turn, the kids on the bus could now look down the tracks and when they did they saw the locomotive rushing head-long towards the crossing, still partially hidden by the trees for a couple of seconds until it broke into the clear only half a football field or so away and that's when they realized that Priddy wasn't slowing down. Everyone on the bus started yelling at him to stop, screaming 'TRAIN!!!' at the top of their lungs as they felt the front wheels bump across the first rail, then the second...The train's huffing and the whistles screech was deafening...The front of the locomotive probably looked as big as the bow of a battleship bearing down on them...

I'm doing this view just a bit differently...they've come out of the curve, and are on the short stretch of Seward Rd between curve and crossing that's parallel to the tracks. Priddy would have been concentrating on driving, looking ahead of him, and even if he did look back, would have no way to see any signs of the approaching train because his view would be blocked by the bus itself. The kids on the bus, however, could certainly look out of the back windows, and this is the view they had when they did.

 The train's, guessing, somewhere between 500 and 750 feet away now, running about 50. Heavy steam locomotives are not would have been belting a smoke column skyward even as the engineer blew the crossing signal. and the 'CHF-CHF-CHF-CHF' of the exhaust may have been becoming audible. Any kids looking back would have seen that smoke column punching skyward over the trees, and by then, it's a good bet they could hear the whistle...but they had absolutely no reason to think Priddy wasn't going to stop for the train, so it's also a good bet that they didn't say anything yet, continuing with the kidcentric activities that were already in progress.

Making the turn onto the connector road's iffy whether Priddy could have see the approaching train...which was only a second or so from emerging from the tree-line under full this point because he would have had to look back almost over his shoulder as they turned...the door and door frame may, or may not have hidden the smoke column, punching skyward above the trees, from him,  but it's just bout a sure bet he could have heard it...and a second or so  later...

This would have been Priddy's view if he'd looked to the right as he straightened the bus out once he made that turn. The train would have been to the left of mid frame, bursting into view out of the tree line, less than three seconds away from the crossing. Priddy would have absolutely been able to see the train at this point, as well as get stopped before reaching the crossing...if he had looked to the right, and been slowing the bus to stop at the crossing as he was supposed to do anyway. But he didn't and was apparently actually accelerating out of the turn at this point...

The fireman on the locomotive saw the bus the instant the locomotive emerged from the tree-line...already all but on the crossing. He shouted a desperate warning across the cab to Joe Darnell, who didn't even have time to grab the brake handle, much less yank it into 'Emergency', before they hit the bus still under full steam.
If the sources I could  find, along with Google Maps Satellite view, are accurate there wasn't a snowball's chance in hell of the train getting slowed down, much less stopped. The train was less than 200 feet away from the crossing when it emerged from the tree-line, giving the fireman a clear view of Seward Rd, the connecting road...and the bus. The fireman would have been seated on the left side of the cab, leaning out of the cab's picture window so he had a view forward, so he's the one who would have gone wide-eyed and pale as, only about 200 feet ahead of them, the front wheels of the bus bumped across the first rail.

 His heart was likely in his throat as he turned his head to look towards Joe Darnell and shouted a desperate Hale-Mary warning across the cab...but he knew even as he did so that they were beyond too late...they were already right on top of the bus...he probably took the memory of wide-eyed, terrified faces in the bus windows to his grave...
 AT 50 MPH, that two hundred feet takes just a fraction over 2 seconds to cover...just about long enough for him to yell 'BIG-HOLE HER JOE!!!' across the cab, and nowhere near enough time for Joe Darnell to even grab the brake handle and yank it into full emergency, much less time for the brakes to even grab. They were still under full steam when the locomotive pilot bit hard into the right side of the bus, just about dead-broad-side, with a deadly, horrible 'CRA-WHUMP!!! and booted it almost 100 feet, back across Seward Road and into one of those near-impenetrable roadside brier patches that are a given in any southern countryside.

The bus came apart explosively as it was hit, tearing almost in two. It was probably held together only by the frame rails as it spun away from the tracks, looking like a grotesque, flapping yellow metal scare crow as it flipped and tumbled across Seward Road and slammed down into the brier patch. Four of the kids on board were ejected as the bus spun and flipped, two of them close enough to the tracks to land in front of the locomotive. Those two, as well as another child who was slammed through the bus' floor board and a forth who ended up under the bus when it finally stopped tumbling, were killed instantly. At least a couple of other children were also ejected as the bus bounced across Seward Road and now lay near the road side, gravely injured. Priddy was jammed between the wheel, his seat, and the left side of the bus, dead.  The rest of the kids were trapped in the twisted wreck of the bus, also seriously to gravely injured.

The residents of Eads heard that solid, cataclysmic 'CRUMP!! that always spells disaster, heard the train sliding, knew the train had hit something, and knowing that the school bus was just about due to drop kids off in Eads, were probably hoping desperately that it was anything other than the bus as they descended upon the crossing even as the train slid to a stop.  They saw the twisted mass of mangled yellow metal, heard the groans and sobs and pleas for help coming from the shattered...and smoking...hulk of the bus, and started working on getting the kids out. One of the train passengers, who also happened to be a mechanic, bailed off of the train, ran to the bus and fought his way through the briers, calling for someone to bring him a pair of pliers when he reached the now likely hoodless engine compartment and saw that the fuel line had torn loose and was dripping briskly. The battery, he could see, was still'd only take a single arc...

Someone...probably one of the train crew...tossed him a pair of pliers, and he quickly and efficiently first crimped the fuel line, then disconnected the battery, likely praying fervently that it didn't arc when he did so. While he was doing this, someone else manged to find a couple of big scythes or small machetes, or something that they could use to cut though the briers to get to the bus...and the trapped kids.

Yet another person headed for one of the stores or maybe the Post Office, the most likely places to find a phone, and called for help.  Help was requested from Memphis and any other near by town that had ambulances and rescue equipment (Probably few and far between in Shelby County back then) and several ambulances headed West from Memphis on US 64, sirens screaming, As they were converging on the scene, residents and train passengers started bringing kids out of the bus and through the pathway that had been hacked through the briers. At some point, one of them checked on Priddy, but it only took a second or so to ascertain that he was dead.

One of the parents who heard that cataclysmic crunch was Melvin and Tom Richmond's mom. She heard the collision, and probably stepped out on the front porch of their house to see if she could see what it was, and probably saw the locomotive, wheels locked and screaming against rails, slide past, slowing to a stop. She also saw the cloud of dust hanging in the air east of her house, over Seward Road, and just knew, with that instinct that all moms possess, that something horrible had happened to her kids. She took off running up Seward Road, first reaching the mangled bus, hearing the cries and sobs from inside the vehicle, then seeing the kids lying on the road and near the tracks. She ran towards the crossing and all but tripped over Tom, who was gravely injured, but alive. Melvin was only a few feet away, dead. She gathered her children in her arms and, sitting by the roadside, sobbed.

There were eight kids who were horribly injured, and as often happened back in the day, several of them were loaded into private cars which then took off up US 64 for Baptist Hospital in Memphis (I still shudder at the thought of transporting anyone with serious to critical traumatic injuries sans spinal immobilization). This, sadly, set in motion yet another common element in major multi-victim accidents that you see even to this day, especially in incidents involving multiple injured children. (Major Incidents with multiple patients are called 'Mass Casualty Incidents' or MCAs today, BTW.) 

When there are multiple injured kids, often notification to parents of where their kids are being transported...or even that their kids are involved in the accident in the first place...can't keep up with the actual transport of patients. This is especially true when you have gravely injured kids who are unconscious and carrying no ID.

 NOW...throw in a few kids being transported by well meaning civilians in private cars before Fire/EMS/P.D. arrives on scene, and add a few dozen worried parents who have no idea where their child is or even if they are alive or dead. and you have he perfect mix for one of the most stressful, horrible experiences a parent will ever have to endure.

It's about as bad for a parent as it can get when this happens today, but it would have been even worse seventy years ago, when transport by private vehicle before help arrived was very common and means of communications were far less advanced. This causes the already emotionally drained, worried parents to have to go from hopital to hospital to morgue searching for their kids, without knowing where they are, how badly they are injured, or even if they are alive or dead. We've seen this over and over in these posts,and it was no different here. It always makes the worry and grief just that much more horrible for the parents.

In Eades, parents first searched among the bodies on the scene (Something that would, thankfully, absolutely not happen this day and time) and if they didn't find their child on scene they headed for Memphis to search hospitals there. The ones who waited around for an ambulance to arrive (There weren't more than one or two live patients transported by ambo...for the most part the ambulances transported deceased victims to a morgue) had the advantage of knowing where their child was being transported. Of course, at the time Memphis only had one truly major hospital...Baptist Hospital...and this is where the majority, if not all, of the injured kids were transported. At least the parents only had to try to cut through the bureaucracy of one hospital to find their child rather than several of them.

Another common occurrence in this type of accident...many of the bodies were horribly mangled, and parents had to use clothing or other identifiers to identify their child. (This would be bad enough in a morgue, after the body has been prepped, as much as possible, for viewing and identification.. Words to describe the horror of having to ID your child through clothing while they're still in place on the scene just don't exist.). One of the victims was identified only by the cast on her arm...the little girl who, only an hour or so before had been gleefully showing off that same cast as her friends signed it. Six of the kids on the bus died on the scene, one other child died in the hospital.

The investigation...likely involving local and state officials as well as officials from the Interstate Commerce Commission...started before the day was over, but the only thing they could determine was that Ben Priddy, for reasons unknown (And unknown to this very day) drove his bus in front of an oncoming train. Of course, the fact that no one knew why he drove onto the crossing didn't stop the fact it probably encouraged it.

The first theory that was broached was that Priddy suffered from some unknown medical emergency just about the time he started making the turn onto the connecting road, and was unconscious when he drove in front of the train. I found one source that stated that he'd mentioned having a headache that morning, and a coupe of other sources that suggest that his bus was actually stopped on the crossing when it was hit. This is one of those times that I'd really love to have the ICC report, which, as noted above, is apparently long gone, at least on-line.

If the bus was indeed stopped...more telling, stopped at an angle or stopped at an angle with the front wheels actually off of the would make the possibility of a medical emergency even more likely...but again, we have no report (And very little real information) as well as at least a couple of more theories.

It was also noted that when found, Priddy was clutching a pouch of roll-your-own tobacco in one hand, which seems to suggest a cause that sounds very familiar today...distracted driving. But I've got to be honest here...I don't think he was rolling a cigarette as he was making that turn. We're talking a mid or late 30s/very early 40s truck chassis here, and driving a truck...because that's actually what a school bus on a commercial truck chassis is...of that era was very much a two handed job. They didn't have power steering, and did have manual transmissions (Automatic transmissions were just being introduced in some high-end cars in '41, automatics in trucks were still decades down the road.). This manual transmission was, BTW, very likely unsynchronized. So...he was making a 90 turn and having to shift as he accelerated out of the turn, which meant up-shifting as he manhandled the wheel. you really think he was rolling a cigarette?

The third theory is another old bugaboo that's shown up regularly, complacency. You know, there's never been a train here...

This train was a regularly scheduled passenger train that came through several times a week if not every day at just about the same time (Probably just before the bus went through Eads the first time), so it had usually gone through Eads when Priddy came through on Seward Road the first time and was in Memphis when he came through the second time, crossing the tracks.

Problem was, the train was twenty minutes late on that fateful October 10th. So it's very possible that Priddy made the turn onto the connecting road with the thought 'There is no train'. But that doesn't explain why he didn't see or hear the train that was indeed there...or why he didn't hear the kids' warnings (This kinda lends a bit more credence to theory #1, IMHO)

Which leads us to the unanswerable question...why didn't he stop and check for a train? Every school system had policies to that effect by then, and many if not most states did indeed have a law requiring school bus drivers to stop at railroad crossings (though both policy and law were, obviously, pretty regularly ignored...until a tragedy occurred.).

This one's going to remain a mystery. You can speculate, and theorize, and analyze all you want to, but the fact remains here that Ben Priddy took the reason he drove in front of that train to his grave. And unless some earth-shaking new evidence rears it's head (If, indeed, anyone's even looking for new evidence) that's the way it's going to stay.

I got the impression that the 'Had a medical emergency' theory was the one that became the 'official unofficial' reason the crash happened in the minds of most of the residents of the Eads area at the time. It would of been the less troubling reason in the minds of the parents of his relatives, the kids, and the citizens of Eads. A medical emergency would have taken it out of his hands.

The fact remains that, no matter what the reason, seven children were dead. Nothing could change that, or make the pain more bearable. The parents of those children, as well as their young friends, would be reminded of the accident every time they drove up Seward Rd past the crossing, the surviving kids on the bus that'd take over Priddy's route would likely look up the tracks almost involuntarily every time their driver made that right turn to cross them, and they would probably all but involuntarily flinch every time they heard the shrill wail of a train whistle.

For the Richmond family, the memories would be even closer to home, in a very literal sense. Melvin Richmond was buried in Eads' small cemetery, which is on Washington Street, diagonally across from and only one hundred feet or so from the crossing where he died, and almost with-in sight of his house..


The children who died that afternoon

Glenn Sherrill, 12 and Alma Sherrill, 9

Hayden Austin Williams, 9

Norma Jean Seward, 12

Guy Anderson Jr, 12

Melvin Richmond, 11

Kenneth Bryan, 9



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

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


After researching these accidents for pushing a year (I know...I know...back last  February I said I was going to publish Part 2 of this series in 'A Few Weeks...' ) I'm no longer even vaguely surprised when I can't find any real information on one of them. To be honest, I'm a bit more surprised when I do fnd a decent amount of info...or better yet, the ICC report.

But lets be honest here. The 30s and 40s were, respectively, eighty and seventy years ago. Media storage back then was just that...hard copies actually stored in file cabinets and file boxes. Starting in the late 20s, most newspapers were transferred to microfiche or microfilm but this still required physical storage, One problem with physical storage is, of course, that it requires physical space. Even when the articles were stored on microfiche, reducing the space needed to store an entire day's newspaper to that required to store a single article of the actual paper, years and years of microfiched papers could and did take up a huge amount of storage space. And this brings us to the big  problem with with physical's real easy to damage. Or loose. Or throw out. Causing it to be gone forever.

ICC reports were similarly microfiched, and while there were far. far fewer of them (Thankfully) than there were newspapers, you still had the problem of storage, damage and loss. Volume wise, remember that the ICC, much like the present day NTSB, investigated not only the 'Big Ones', but all railroad, commercial motor carrier, and aircraft accidents. The only reports that were archived as time went by and storage transitioned to electronic media, as I've discovered, were railroad and aircraft accidents. And guess what...not all of them have survived to be archived digitally.

Which brings us to the wonders of modern technology. A couple of mouse clicks and you can have access to anything, be it old news article, or decades old ICC report, right?? Even with electronic storage, clicking on a link can yield that dreaded '404 error' rather than the goldmine of new info you were hoping for, especially with old newspaper articles. Then, even when you do find an article about the incident you're researching, you realize they're on a pay site that wants a pretty steep monthly or yearly fee for access, and, much as I'd like to be able to access them, there are far higher priorities,, shelter, eating, and such.

 OH...yeah...those 404 errors? Ya get 'em when you search for older accident reports, too. I found an archive that had scores of old ICC and NTSB reports archived, but the thing is they don't have all of them. So far I'm batting about .450 in finding ICC reports for the the older accidents I'm posting about...four out of nine. Which brings us to the Eads Train-bus crash. It was one of the crashes I couldn't find the NTSB report on (Even though I do have the report number). And, as always, I would have loved to have been able to find it...but it wasn't to be.

I did, however , find some good articles...most actually newer ones, written around the anniversary date of the well as a good write-up in 'Find-a-grave' (A somewhat macabre, but useful site when searching out information on disasters), and between the articles I could find and my trusty genealogy site I was able to get a good feel for what probably happened and a fair description of the accident itself as well as the general lay-out of the scene...enough to, once I dismissed some of the obvious sensationalizing that the Media was famous for even back then, make a good, solid guess about how and where the bus ended up, and what went on in the immediate aftermath of the crash. Trust me, if you don't have the accident report, in order to make an article such as this even semi accurate, sometimes you have to read between the lines a little.

For never said anywhere that the bus ended up to the south of the tracks...but it did say that it ended up 90 feet away from the crossing in the woods in a brier patch...and while there are now a couple of homes on Seward Road that distance from the crossing, they are both in within the last 20 years or, so it's a good bet that nearly seventy-five years ago, that area was all wooded. And the train apparently hit the bus just a bit forward of broadside, given that Priddy was killed instantly, so the bus would have likely spun away from the locomotive with the front end swinging hard to the left...sending it south of the tracks, across Seward Road.

So yeah, as I have to do in all of my articles from way-back, I had to guess and speculate a bit...but, again, as always I tried to make it readable, informative, and as accurate as possible.

So! On to the notes!


Though it was never mentioned anywhere, I can't help but wonder if the train passenger/mechanic who crimped the fuel line and disconnected the battery, thereby preventing an even worse tragedy, was a volunteer firefighter, or even a salaried firefighter who worked as a mechanic as a second job, assuming his department used a shift schedule that allowed for a second job. 

The reason I wonder about this? Not many civilians would have instantly thought 'Check for hazards! That type of mindset just has 'Fire Department' written all over it. Whether he was a firefighter, or just a particularly level headed civilian, the kids who were trapped on that bus probably owe him their lives, because I have a feeling that the bus wasn't more than a couple of minutes from lighting off.


A quick word about the school where this fateful bus ride originated...George R. James elementary School.

The building was a single story brick and stucco, hip-roofed, eight room school building, complete with Auditorium and library, that was pretty much a perfect example of the iconic early 20th century rural elementary school of the type built all over the country as the era of the 'One Room Schoolhouse' came to a close. Millions of people who are now in their 50s to 80s likely picture the exact kind of building I'm talking about when memories of the elementary school they attended come to mind. Heck, there are a more than a few of them still in use, either re-purposed as anything from homes and apartments to office buildings to a rapidly decreasing few here and there there that are still in use as schools. But it's not the building I'm writing this to's the people and the attitude.

See...G.R.J. Elementary was ahead of it's time in more than a few ways. The school actually combined elementary school and what's now called middle school (Jr High School back in that era), with first through eighth grades.

Among the classes taught back in the day were communications...many rural families didn't have phones back in the day, and the principal decided...rightly...that knowing how to use a phone was a necessary and possibly even potentially life-saving skill. This class was officially included in the school's curriculum, probably very early on.

Another unique treat was the providence of the school's 'upper classmen'...the Eighth Graders. Each year G.R.J.'s very progressive principal, Ms Jane Hinton, took the eighth grade on a field trip into Memphis so the kids would at least get a glimpse of what a big city looked like...I know, the thought of not visiting a city that was only twenty miles away is a foreign concept today, but, for rural kids back in the Thirties and Forties, especially the poorer children, a trip into 'The City' was a maybe once a year, or even less frequent, experience.

Ms Hinton made sure her eighth graders got the whole city quote the Memphis Press-Scimitar :

The children are taken to the Hotel Peabody to see how a big city hotel operates, to a florist shop to sniff orchids, to the Sterick Building for a ride on the elevator, to the river, police station, courthouse, and various businesses, through a dime store, and lunch in a restaurant.”

Wait...what??? No fire station??? Come on!!!!

But in all seriousness, this was probably a trip these kids looked forward to all year long.

I don't know how long the trips into Memphis continued, but the school was open through the 1973-74 school year...and would have been open longer were it not for a major fire on an August evening in 1974. The school was in full bloom when the first units of the Shelby County Fire Department rolled in, so they were already behind the eight-ball big-time before the first tone sounded and the first growl of a house siren winding up...

With no water supply readily available, they had to set up a tanker shuttle for water supply, and with the building fully involved before the first rig rolled in, the pretty old building was doomed. It ended up burning to the ground despite S.C.F.D.'s best efforts.

While the school's been gone for pushing 42 years now, it's not only not forgotten, but is fondly remembered by generations of former and present Shelby County residents.


I found several articles about the Eads bus crash, most from Memphis Magazine and other publications local to Memphis, but I also found the Facebook page for Memphis' awesome fire museum, and a couple of other interesting links.   Article from Vance Lauderdale's excellent Memphis history blog. When you finish reading this post, check out the rest of the Blog as well, especially if you're a resident...or just a fan...of this beautiful town.

Another post by Vance Lauderdale, this one from his column in Memphis Magazine. It goes into further detail about Tom Richmond's (Melvin Richmond's older brother) ordeal the day of the accident.  And yet a third Vance Lauderdale penned article, this one about George R James School, the school that the kids on the bus attended, and where the fatal trip began.  Post on about Melvin Richmond. This is an interesting...and more than a little that still yields good research information about disasters. BE WARNED...the narrative goes into graphic detail about his brother Tom's injuries.  Write-up about thr bus crash on the Memphis Fire Museum's Facebook page. Once you've read it, peruse the rest of their Facebook page. This is one of the better fire museum;s in the U.S. If you live near Memphis, or are passing through or near-by, and have an interest in firefighting and history (Or if you have kids...all kids are fire buffs!) don't just visit the museum...stop by and visit it person!

1 comment:

  1. Interesting article on this unfortunate event. If you go to you can trace the aerial route of the bus driver and train. The link has a date that goes back to as early as 1957 but like you said not much has changed in the area. In '57 you can still see the aerial view of the tracks and you may even follow the tracks as far as you like through Memphis using the viewer. Judging from the map, it looks like there were hardly any trees on either side of the track near Seward Rd back then (even less sparse in 1941) so I'm not sure how the driver did not see the train coming west off the distance had he been alert. I live in Cordova, TN and there is still a vacant train station that exists in the old historic downtown area. This station would've probably been the next stop for this train and would've only been a few minutes east of their destination before the tragic collision.