Jerry Summers: Tragic Spring City Train-Bus Accident (1955)

Monday, September 28, 2020 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

Sometimes good practices occur after a tragic accident.  A collision between a train and a school bus loaded with children is often devastating to multiple families.

On August 22, 1955, the small rural community of Spring City in the northeast corner of Rhea County was the site of such a fatal collision between a freight train and a Rhea County School bus containing 47 students and the bus driver.

Rhea County primarily being an agricultural community school had started early in the fall in order that the kids living on a farm could be given a week or so as a long break during the harvest season.

The town kids would get an extra week out of school also.

At 3:00 p.m. the final school bell rang indicating the end of the school day.  The students who rode to school on the bus would head to their bus or one of the other bright yellow buses lined up in the school’s driveway.

The driver of the bus was a farmer who had started driving a school bus at the beginning of the school year.

He would turn left going off school property and after travelling a couple of blocks turned right on New Lake Road to head west out of town onto what was then Tennessee State Route 68.

Going west Route 68 crosses U.S. 27 and about 100 yards further crosses the Southern Railway tracks at a signal protected grade crossing.  However 65 years ago the crossing consisted of bells and lights without gates. 

Alternating red lights and the sound of an attention-getting gong were activated when the bus crossed U.S. 27 on the green light.  No automatic crossing gate to prevent the bus from entering on to the track was in existence.

The investigation following the crash indicated that the bus driver had unsuccessfully tried to “beat the train” as it tried to make the crossing.

The rear end of the bus was struck by a long freight train being pulled by two diesel engines and travelling about 45 miles per hour.

When the engineer saw that the bus was not going to stop before crossing the tracks he slammed the brakes into full emergency in a desperate attempt to slow down the train but the lead locomotive tore into the rear half of the bus with a tremendous impact that ripped the bus open.

Ten children were instantly killed and several others were ejected from the bus and sustained serious injuries.  An eleventh student later died at the hospital in nearby Rockwood.

The tragic accident had happened in the center of town, only two blocks from the elementary school and 100 feet from Spring City’s main business street, which runs parallel to and on the opposite side of the tracks from U.S. 27.

Emergency medical treatment was very primitive in 1955 but the community responded in a positive manner and transferred the injured in private vehicles to all nearby hospitals in Dayton, Rockwood, Crossville and even Chattanooga, 55 miles away.

Fortunately most of the injured kids recovered with 31 of the students either being killed or injured, leaving only 16 of the 47 on board unhurt.

The bus driver who was unhurt was charged with involuntary manslaughter and ultimately was tried, convicted and sentenced to one year in jail.

He initially unsuccessfully tried to claim he stopped the bus before going onto the tracks, several box cars on a nearby railing blocked his view, that the signals weren’t working, and that the train engineer never blew the horn.   

He was released on bond due to high community feelings of anger but had to be placed in protective custody and moved to another town after threats of vigilante street justice were made against him.

None of the drivers’ excuses were accepted and Tennessee Governor Frank G. Clement arrived in Spring City and gave a speech at the train depot before a large crowd.

He promised a thorough in-depth investigation and personally visited each and every child that was hospitalized.

Due to the public outcry, legislation was drafted which would require every school bus in Tennessee, when transporting children, to stop at all railroad crossings, and for the school bus drivers to actively look and listen for a train and not proceed until the way was safe.

Because of political pressure by the mothers of the slain and injured children and the Spring City Parents Teachers Association (PTA) the new regulations passed the Tennessee General Assembly rapidly.

The law became a model for other states and within a year all 48 then existing states had enacted their own version of the bill.

It would take over a decade for Congress to pass a version of the bill and to require each state to pass and enforce such a law.

The victims of the crash were initially memorialized with a Memorial Fountain at Spring City Elementary where it stood for 50 years but it was destroyed when the school was completely reconstructed.

On the 50th anniversary (2005) of the crash a new and larger memorial was erected on the lawn of the city’s restored train depot.     

The physical presence serves as both a permanent memorial and reminder of the tragedy and the community effort to get laws passed that have probably saved hundreds of lives at school crossings since 1955.

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)  

           

           


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