Quite often someone, in casual conversation, will ask me what was the biggest or most exciting story I ever worked on as a newspaperman, I have a standard answer—the first one.
That may be true for lots of journalists, but in this case my first story was a really big one, and it happened 25 years ago tomorrow, the day I started work for this newspaper.
I had been working at Armco for two years when times got hard. Not as tough as they are right now, but bad enough that the open hearth where I clerked was cut back by half. I scouted around for something to do during a layoff and found three openings—all filling vacancies created by pregnancies.
I took a reportorial job at this paper and was asked to come in on Friday, but asked to wait until Monday, March 3, a new month and new week. Meanwhile, Wanda, our year-old Susan and I started motoring up Big Sandy, en route to her folks’ house in Harlan County.
As we moved through the upper reaches of Lawrence and into Johnson, I switched on the radio to hear organ music. The funeral atmosphere of the station was pervading, and I told Wanda something was wrong somewhere.
We soon learned a Floyd County school bus had been in an accident striking a wrecker and going into the Big Sandy upstream from Prestonsburg. In that terrible scene, 26 children and the driver were drowned.
Because I had a year-old child with me, and because I knew nothing of the techniques of interviewing, I refrained from going to the actual scene. (It was sealed off for recovery purposes.) Although we were re-routed to the west, I was able to listen on a local station’s interview of a witness, and took notes and telephoned them to this paper.
The real horror of this story came later, as parents and friends of the lost children stood on bridges until summer, waiting for bodies to surface. Some families lost as many as three children and had to post lookouts downstream to watch for them.
Less than a year later came our own tragedy here in Ashland, the Valentine’s Day Fire of 1959, and by then I was deep into personal conversation with burned victims who survived, and witness to the grisly aftermath of a hotel fire. Later, I was involved in coverage of an even larger death toll, the Marshall University Plane crash. None of these had the impact of my first story.
People in Floyd County may recall the event tomorrow, but there’s a move afoot for commemoration, so far as I know. They would like to forget about it. About the only time it is mentioned any more, up there, is when weather is marginal and some people wonder why school buses aren’t running. It is then that memories recall just how bad things could be.