February 28, 1958: The Prestonburg, Kentucky School Bus Crash


On February 28, 1958, a school bus carrying 48 elementary through high school students plunged into the Big Sandy River near Prestonburg, Kentucky, following a collision. 26 students and the driver were killed not from the collision, but from drowning.

The morning was cold and cloudy, following days of rain, and the bus struck the rear of a wrecker truck, and then tumbled down an embankment into the extremely high waters of the river, where it was swept downstream and submerged.

22 children made it out safely.

The bus was not found by Navy Divers and extracted from the river for 53 hours.

The site of the accident has been marked with a sign and an image of the bus, with a list of the names of the children who died that day.


Before crashing, the bus stopped to pick up Ezelle Pennington and her best friend Joyce Matney, and Joyce's younger sister, Rita. 5 other children got on the bus at that stop. The bus was full at that point, so Ezelle went to the back of the bus, and the Matney sisters took seats closer to the front.

Students recall seeing the wrecker truck up ahead. Janice Blackburn, 14, saw it but thought nothing of it and went back to reading. Donald Dillon, an 8th grader, remembers some of the boys thinking the bus might hit it, but he thought the driver would have plenty of time to stop and go around it.

Isaac Vanderpool, 17 at the time, was sitting right behind the driver, DeRossett. He remembers him yelling when the bus hit the truck, and the subsequent screams of all of the passengers as the bus made a hard left towards the river, narrowly missing another car on its way down. It began to slide headfirst down the river bank.

Ezelle remembers being surprised they weren't hitting trees: It was all water. Due to the excessive rains in previous days, the water was up higher than normal.

The bus became submerged, half in, half out, bobbing up and down for a few minutes. The driver was knocked unconscious, and it appears he never regained it. He drowned in the drivers' seat. Some kids were sitting in silence, some cried, and some tried to get out.

William Leedy, 13 at the time, blacked out initially but in the chaos, he acted: He ran to the back emergency door and kicked it open, and was the first to jump into the water. Because the back of the bus was typically where the older boys sat, a bunch of boys started jumping out after him.

The waters were extremely rough but Leedy, a good swimmer, was able to go back and forth, helping terrified kids as long as he continued to hear people needing it.

Donald Dillon and his older brother Winston were escaping with classmate Bucky Jarrell, but Bucky went back to get his little sister, Katie, screaming her name. He never came back.

Brothers and sisters were screaming names, trying to find one another. Ezelle remembers a kid refusing to jump until he found his brother, and she told him his brother had already escaped. She didn't know if it was true, but needed to see someone else jump to gain the courage to jump herself. Ezelle survived, but her best friend and her little sister did not escape from the bus.

At this point, the driver of both the wrecker truck and the driver of the other car the bus just missed had slid down the embankment to try and help save the children. Survivors recall seeing children holding onto branches being swept away on the unforgiving river. As the bus continued further away, they saw hands sticking out from the windows.

One of the last students to make it to safety, Isaac Vanderpool, swam the length of the bus as it was underwater to get out the back door and swim to safety.

Leedy remembers grabbing a small girl by the hair who was drowning, but the current was so strong, she was ripped away, leaving him with just a handful of her hair.

Jeff Gunnell who was 14 at the time recalls not realizing right away that not everybody made it off the bus. It wasn't until he looked around and saw only a fraction of the kids who were just moments ago on their way to school standing on the river bank that he realized that most of their bus didn't make it.


Retrieving the bus took 53 hours. People were shocked that such a large vehicle would be so tough to find. 15 bodies were found in the bus. It took 69 days to find all of the victims, the last being a 9-year-old girl. (2)

William Jarrell, father of the young boy who nearly escaped but went back for his sister, took a boat 100 miles looking for his daughter. His son's body was found on the bus, but it took 40 days to find her. He said had they not found her, he would have never stopped looking. (2)

One set of parents, the Goble's, lost all 3 of their children. 2 other families were left childless, and 7 other families lost 2 children each. The Goble's found out when a neighbor ran to the school, where she taught, to tell her about the bus. She hoped that at least one of her children would survive, but knew in her heart that all of them had died. (3)

It is still not known what exactly happened. Though cloudy, there were no issues with visibility, and the placement of the truck would have given the bus plenty of time to stop. There was no way to determine if there were any mechanical issues, as by the time the bus was found, it was impossible to piece anything together. Some thought the driver may have experienced a heart attack or other medical issue while driving, but an autopsy did not reveal anything to support that. (2)

Ezelle was not able to attend the ensuing string of funerals for her friends and classmates, even the one for her best friend, terrified to look her family in the eyes knowing she survived and their children didn't. She said she wishes she had gotten counseling help back then, but people didn't really think of it. (2)

Winston Dillon never returned to school, because he could not take the heartbreak of seeing all of the empty seats. (2)

A memorial stands where the accident took place. Leedy, who attributes his time in the Marines after the tragedy to helping sort out his psychological trauma, does not believe the memorial is enough. Though, many parents, including the Goble's disagree. They do not want to pass it and remember that day. The less they think about it, the better. (2)

Here is the list of victims: (3)

o Doris Burchett, 15

o James Carey, 9

o Glenda Cisco, 17

o Kenneth Cisco, 14

o Sandra Cline, 8

o Paulette Cline, 9

o Imogene Darby, 17

o Linda Darby, 14

o John DeRossett, 27 (driver)

o James Goble, 12

o John Goble, 11

o Anna Goble, 9

o Jane Harris, 14

o John Hughes

o Margaret Hunt, 15

o Bucky Jarrell, 14

o Katie Jarrell, 13

o Marcella Jervis, 15

o Montaine Jervis, 15

o Thomas Jervis, 13

o Katherine Justice, 15

o Nannie McPeek, 17

o Joyce Matney, 14

o Rita Matney, 8

o James Meade, 9

o James Ousley, 15

o Randy Wallen, 17

This story is one of the more heartbreaking ones I've chosen to write about, but wanted to remember these victims. They were safely on their way to school, and then within minutes, 26 children's lives were lost. Parents left childless. And what makes it all the more terrifying is that it wasn't a senseless, avoidable act of violence: It was just an accident.

Though a memorial stands and the families and survivors will never forget, this is a story I had never heard, and wanted to take some time to remember the 27 people who died that day, 62 years ago today.


1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prestonsburg,_Kentucky,_bus_disaster

2. http://sites.rootsweb.com/~kyjohnso/Bus.htm

3. http://www.gendisasters.com/kentucky/5782/prestonsburg-ky-school-bus-plunges-big-sandy-river-feb-1958

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