Whitesville Bridge Disaster

Charleston Daily Mail
July 25, 1926

Six Dead, Scores Hurt In Fall Of Bridge

Whitesville Crowd Watching Carnival Plunges Into River

Gore Takes Special Train to Scene and Doctors, Nurses and Ambulances Are Rushed From Charleston

Injured Are Being Brought Here

By J. Roy Fuller
Staff Correspondent Daily Mail

Whitesville, July 25 - Six persons were killed and more than 35 injured, many seriously, and some probably fatally when a suspension foot-bridge over Big Coal river fell here at 10:45 last night.

The bridge was crowded by scores of people watching a free act being staged by the Waddell Carnival shows. One of the cables broke and spilled the spectators 30 feet to the rocks in the shall stream below.

The dead are:

William F. Slush, 67, of Milam, Mich., father of Harry Slush, general manager of the Seng Creek Coal company.

Mrs. George Ward, of Whitesville.

Louise Clark, a young girl.

Nellie Nichols, nine, of Whitesville.

Frank McClellan, 44, colored, of Whitesville.

Hershey Jarrell, 19, of Dorothy.

The injured are being treated in a temporary hospital set up in a store building near the bridge until a special train being made up can take them to Cabin Creek Junction to meet a special train en route from Charleston.

Five ambulances full of injured already have left here for Charleston hospitals.

Twenty-five doctors and an equally large number of nurses from Charleston, Madison and nearby towns are in charge.

The bridge fell, according to reports here, while state troopers were warning the people that they were in danger. The bridge, it is said here, was posted at both ends with warnings.

Several persons were killed and two score were injured, many seriously, when a swinging foot-bridge over Big Coal river fell at 10:45 o'clock last night at Whitesville, Boone county. It was crowded with people watching a carnival act.

Calls for assistance in Charleston were answered immediately and all available ambulances, doctors and nurses were dispatched to the scene.

Governor Gore with a large party of doctors and nurses left on a special train early this morning. Two hours before that time, ambulances summoned by Major R. E. O'Connor of the state police had been dispatched.

State troopers who were at the scene at the time reported that more nurses and doctors were needed and there were not sufficient number in that vicinity. Major O'Connor said that one of his men told him that 45 persons were dead, dying or wounded.

Among the Dead

Among the dead are:

William F. Slush, 67, of Milam, Mich., father of Harry Slush, general manager of the Seng Creek Coal company. He is reported to have lived 10 minutes after the accident.

Hershey Jarrell, 19, of near Whitesville. He lived but a few minutes.

Nellie Nichols, 9 years old, of Whitesville.

Frank McClellan, colored, of Whitesville.

Among the injured was Miss Ada Coddington, of the state health department, who was visiting her sister, Mrs. Slush. She received a bad cut on the leg.

Sixty persons were said to have been injured. A first aid station was set up in a store building in which about half of the injured were placed. The others were cared for in the homes of the town.

Medical attention was given by doctors of Whitesville and nearby towns until relief from Charleston arrived. Ambulances from Charleston began removing the injured to hospitals here.

Troopers Keep Order

Constable Tom Akers, Sergeant Coates of the state police, Troopers Hull, Busch and Cunningham with citizen volunteers kept order as best they could among the hundreds of frantic people running about searching for relatives and friends.

The injured received broken backs, arms, legs and cuts and bruises as they fell on the rocks of the shallow water below the bridge, which was suspended about 30 feet above the bed of the stream.

The crowd, estimated to have numbered a hundred had gathered on the bridge to watch a free act staged by a carnival playing there. In the act, a performer's clothing was saturated with gasoline and set afire after which the performer plunged into the river to extinguish the flames.

The act had been presented each evening last week, and had been watched by people gathered on the bridge, but last night being Saturday evening, a larger crowd than usual had assembled and overtaxed the capacity of the swinging span.

Special Train Goes

A special train ordered by Governor Gore left the C. and O. station at 2:15 this morning. Governor Gore, ten doctors, 15 nurses, a number of state police and reporters were passengers. It was made up of engine, tender and two baggage coaches. Folding chairs had been placed in the coaches.

The train was to meet another special train from Whitesville at Cabin Creek junction where the injured were to be transferred to the governor's train which would return to Charleston, medical treatment to be administered by the doctors and nurses during the trip back to Charleston. Governor Gore said he probably would board the Whitesville train to continue on to the scene of the tragedy.

Earlier in the evening the governor had sent his secretary Sam Mallison, with Major R. E. O'Connor, superintendent of state police to Whitesville. A number of troopers accompanied them.

Chief R. M. Lambie, head of the mine department, was ordered out with an emergency squad.

State Department Helps

Dr. W. T. Henshaw, head of the state health department, was instructed by the governor to assemble doctors and nurses of the department and go to Whitesville immediately. They left in cars, two of which were the governor's private automobiles.

The Charleston General hospital sent an auto load of doctors and nurses but their names could not be learned.

Drs. R. H. Walker and R. A. Ireland went from the Mountain State hospital.

The McMillan hospital sent Dr. Frank Work and Miss Gladys Blankenship and Miss Blanche Nott, nurses.

Dr. B. H. Hill and Miss Frances Shuff went from the Kanawha Valley.

Other doctors were reported to be leaving at 1 o'clock this morning.

Simpson's morgue sent an ambulance in charge of A. J. Lyons and Charles Ramsey.

N. A. Barth, Rev. C. T. Brookshire and P. L. Kerr went from Owen and Barth, undertakers, with two ambulances.

Barlows sent Barnes Surbaugh with an ambulance.

First word of the accident reached Charleston at 11 o'clock coming to Major O'Connor, whose officers at Whitesville told him that 200 people had been on the bridge and that 45 persons were dead, dying or injured. They said doctors nurses an[d] ambulances were urgently needed.

Major O'Connor immediately notified Governor Gore, the local hospitals and the undertakers. All responded and soon the physicians with nurses and ambulances and newspapermen were leaving in relays.

Physicians Offer Services

News of the accident spread outside official circles and private physicians offered their services. People of the city began calling the newspapers for information.

Attempts to get in touch with Whitesville by telephone between 11 and one o'clock were practically in vain. Only two lines run to the town from the East Bank exchange, and both were in constant use by the papers or state officials. However, little response was obtained. Such excitement prevailed in the town that residents were sure of nothing except that they were badly in need of help. When an answer could be obtained to a telephone call, all that could be learned was that many were killed and injured.

The doctors, nurses and ambulances began arriving at the town about two o'clock. The four ambulances soon were filled and dispatched back to Charleston hospitals.

Shortly before 3 o'clock this morning local hospitals were notified to make reservations for between 35 and 40 patients.

Ambulances Arrives

Barlow's ambulance, driven by Barnes Surbaugh was the first one to reach Charleston from Whitesville bringing five injured persons, one very seriously hurt. The ambulance arrived at 3:30 a. m. It brought Robert Ward, 4 years old, son of Mrs. George Ward, who was killed., Carl Thompson, Chester Adkinson, Edward McCowan, one unidentified man who suffered a fractured skull and was in such a condition that he could not talk. All were from Jarrold's valley.

One of the injured men said that the carnival performer had just plunged under the bridge with his clothing afire when the structure fell. His name is unknown. He was among the injured.


At 5 A. M.

At 4 o'clock this morning 18 of the more seriously injured in the Whitesville bridge disaster had been placed on the train, but it did not depart immediately. Physicians at the scene feared that eight or ten of these will not live to reach hospitals. Ambulances alread had left for Charleston with a dozen of the injured. Others are less seriously hurt and will remain at Whitesville.

A report persists that eleven persons were killed, but Major R. E. O'Connor at the scene of the accident was unable to verify this. Also in the rush to attend the injured little or no effort was made to obtain names.

Two of the patients were brought to the Charleston General hospital by ambulance shortly before 4 a. m. They were Sylvanus Truman, of Leevale and Elmer Seel. The latter was the more seriously injured of the two and his condition was considered critical. It was impossible to learn his address, on account of his condition.

Barnes Surbaugh, Barlow's driver was the first to reach Whitesville with an ambulance, and the first to leave. He left Charleston at 11:40 and reached Whitesville at 1:25, where he placed five injured in the ambulance and arrived at the Mountain State hospital here at 3:30 this morning. One patient was placed on the cot, two sat up inside the ambulance and two were slung on stretchers from the roof.

The Ward child, whose mother was killed, suffered a leg broken in two places, a broken arm, and a cut on the head. It was feared at the hospital that the sight of one eye was gone.

Surbaugh said the rescue work was going forward under light provided by automobile headlights and torches.

"Had there been water under the bridge it might have been far better," said Earl Cooper, driver of a taxi, who brought two of the injured to Charleston.

"There were five dead when I left there at 1 o'clock, and I was told they had been killed instantly. There appeared to be at least 50 badly injured, in addition to all those who suffered minor injuries. Everybody on the bridge slid into the water when the cable broke - or rather they were dropped down on to the rocks 30 feet below.

"Mothers were seeking out children and children were looking for parents they feared were lost, so there was considerable confusion amid the heart breaking scenes."

Two unidentified boys, one about ten years old and the other about 15, were brought to Charleston General hospital about 4 a. m. Both were seriously hurt.

One Side Of Bridge Crowd Rushed To

The tragedy at Whitesville was described for the Daily Mail early this morning by three young men who had just arrived in Charleston. They were Pearle Taylor, Tom Cooley and L. L. Green and had been employed by the Seng Creek Coal company for sometime.

Taylor described the scene and his statements were corroborated by Cooley and Green.

"As we stood watching the carnival the bridge gave way and about 75 persons who had been standing on it were thrown down into Coal river in a jam. All of them did not go into the river, because the water was low and the stream was all on one side, leaving plenty of ground to light on. There were men, women and children in the crowd.

"The bridge fell because all of the crowd rushed to one end of it. The crowd was watching a man, employed by the carnival company known as the 'Dare Devil Fire Fighter.' He was saturated with kerosene and his clothing were in flames. His stunt was to run about under the bridge with his clothing aflame and then jump into the river to extinguish the fire. The crowd on the bridge gathered at the ends leaving the center free of weight. As the "fire fighter" ran under the bridge, all of the crowd on one side ran to the other and the cable gave way, throwing about 75 down in a jam.

"The fire fighter was caught under the crowd while his clothing still were in a blaze. He was injured so that he could not move and some one pulled him over to the river and ducked him in, putting out the fire. The man was evidently badly injured and burned.

"A little girl, Nellie Nichols, about 8 years of age, daughter of C. E. Nichols, of Whitesville was so badly injured that she died after they took her out."

The bridge, Taylor described, as a foot bridge, suspended over the river by cables. The cables gave way at only one end.


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