Whitesville Bridge Disaster

Charleston Daily Mail
July 26, 1926

More Bridge Victims Expected To Die

Deaths In Disaster Stay At Six With 36 On Hospital's Lists

Doctors Say That Some of Injured Have Little Chance for Recovery

Relief Plans Being Made

Boone County Officials Go to Whitesville to Determine Cause If Possible

A checkup of hospitals today showed that 12 of the 36 persons who were brought to Charleston from Whitesville, Boone county, early yesterday following the bridge disaster there Saturday night are in a serious condition some of them being not expected to live.

An accurate check of the list of dead showed six persons lost their lives and rumors of a very much higher death toll were set at rest.

Some of the hospital victims are suffering from fractured skulls and nearly all of them have either fractured legs or arms.

One was released from the Kanwha Valley hospital and one is in a hospital at Huntington leaving 35 persons being cared for in Charleston.

While the people of Whitesville were making preparations for the burial of the victims of the bridge accident, Boone county officials were looking into the matter to determine whether an official investigation should be called.

Sheriff Irving Sutphin and A. W. Garnett, prosecuting attorney of Boone county, were to visit the scene of the disaster today. There is no county coroner in Boone, and should an investigation into the disaster be held, it will be conducted by a magistrate, acting as coroner, it was said.

Keep Defective Buckle

No arrangement for investigation by state officials had been made today, but the state police are keeping the defective turnbuckle which snapped and allowed the bridge to collapse, in case an investigation should be conducted. The turnbuckle was rusted almost across the break, showing that the fissure was an old break.

The turnbuckle was brought here by Sergeant George H. Skeen. The exter[i]or portion of the turnbuckle showed evidence of having been painted within the last year.

Major O'Connor incidated that the breaks gave plain evidence of the fault of the bridge, although he said he is not an expert on steel and iron. At the broken points, it is easy to break away small portions with the fingers.

Governor Gore was out of the city today and his secretary, Sam T. Mallison was in charge. He said that the governor had not taken any steps toward an investigation on the part of the state and he did not know of any investigation contemplated.

Built by Boone Court

I....the question of legal responsibility was being discussed. The bridge was built by the Boone county court.

Expert bridge builders say that the engineering requirements in constructing bridges, makes them capable of sustaining four times any anticipated weight which might go on it.

The bridge at Whitesville was approximately 200 feet long and five feet wide. The two cables were 1 1-8 inch in size.

Sam T. Mallison, secretary to Governor Gore, and Major R. E. O'Connor superintendent of the state police, were the first state officials to reach Whitesville Saturday night after the tragedy.

They left the state police headquarters in Kanawha street, at 12:15 a.m. a few minutes after receiving the news, and reached Whitesville at 1:05 o'clock, covering the distance of 30 miles in 50 minutes.

Mr. Mallison drove Major O'Connor's roadster. Nearly all of the road was of dirt surafce [sic] and graded, and was in excellent condition, with the exception of eight miles which contained some rough spots.

Bridge to Be Repaired

A. G. Hager, of Madison, president of the Boone county court, said today that the court members viewed the wrecked bridge yesterday, and ordered a new turnbuckle to replace the broken one. He expected the bridge would be repaired in a short time. New anchors were provided for the cables and the wooden flooring was replaced this Spring he said, adding that residents of Whitesville at the time complimented the court on the work. The bridge was not considered unsafe, he said when informed that there were rumors at Whitesville to that effect, and the accident was caused entirely by overloading it and the sudden shift of the crowd to the up-river side.

The West Virginia Medical society today announced plans for the formation of a permanent relief organization of doctors and nurses, who may be mobilized quickly following any emergency. Lists are being made up, and communication with medical men of the state was to start at once.

The body of W. F. Slush, father of General Manager H. M. Slush of the Seng Creek Coal company at Whitesville, was sent today to his home in Milan, Mich., for burial.

It was considered possible that in the confusion following the accident that some were taken home in the belief the injuries were slight, and that some of these had died, but none could be found. In rural communities the dead are sometimes prepared for burial at the home and no record is made of the death.

The city of Charleston and the Union Mission have offered any assistance needed by victims of the bridge disaster. Owing to the hurried departure of many persons with the injured, it was believed that some may find themselves in Charleston with little money. Hugh C. Walker, city manager, announced yesterday that restaurant and hotel accommodations would be supplied by the city through his office. Dr. H. B. Lohan, city health commissioner, offered the use of his department to the Whitesville people.

The Union Mission today volunteered to provide accommodations to those who need it.

Miners Give Aid

Robert M. Lambie, chief of the state department of mines, who was among the first from Charleston to reach Whitesville after the tragedy, today took time to give credit to the resident doctors and Whitesville and First Aid teams from the mines there for the quick and efficient aid to the injured.

Mr. Lambie said that he was aroused by Governor Gore shortly after midnight Saturday and he drove immediately to Whitesville. When he arrived about 1:20 a. m., he found that the injuries of 20 persons had been treated and the work was still progressing.

"Those men worked heroically," said Mr. Lambie. The mining chief said that only recently the first aid teams at and near Whitesville had been instructed by C. O. Morris, of his department.

"As soon as I saw the bandages, I recognized them as the work of 'first aid team'" said Mr. Lambie.

Governor's Train of Mercy Meets Whitesville Special

Gore Travels in Express Car Carrying Doctors and Nurses to Scene of Bridge Disaster; Trains Meet at Tunnel Junction; Sorrowful Sights Everywhere

By L. S. Cameron

People were in distress Saturday night and Governor Gore heard about it. He had been told of the Whitesville bridge disaster by Major R. E. O'Conner, head of the state police. Immediately, the governor went to work. Ambulances were sent from Charleston to Whitesville. There are a lot of these loudly-shrieking automobiles here, and all available, bearing doctors and nurses, had been sent on the two-hour drive to the mining community gripped by a tragedy that had occurred in teh twinkling of an eye. Receiving word that even this extraordinary procedure had not fully coped with the situation, Governor Gore issued a hurry order for a special train. While the Chesapeake and Ohio train dispatcher was lining things up for this special, word was sent to doctors and nurses of Charleston, and by 2 o'clock, a company of 20 odd physicians and nurses had gathered at the station. The train was brough out. Governor Gore unattended, walked down the stairs of the station, spoke a word to the train crew, and an errand of mercy had started.

It was quite a train. The fact is, it wasn't much of a train at all. When it left Charleston, the train was an engine and a baggage car. There were chairs for the nurses and other women, brought to the station by state police, but the governor and other men sat on the floor of the swaying car, illuminated only by a smoking oil lantern. The train reached Cabin Creek Junction. Here the train was enlarged. Three freight cabooses were added. The passengers spread out a bit here and moving continued on toward Whitesville. At Cane Fork a fresh locomotive was added. Governor Gore went up into the dispatcher's tower and learned that a special train arranged at Whitesville, was about to leave for Charleston.

"What," the dispatcher asked "do you want to do?"

"We want the injured to get to Charleston as soon as possible," the governor told him.

Trains Meet

It was then arranged that the trains would meet at Tunnel Junction. They did meet at 4:45 a. m. Trains halted, Governor Gore was assured that the situation was well in hand, that all seriously hurt were either on the Charleston-bound special or had been dispatched to Charleston hospitals in ambulances or other automobiles. There was no need, the governor was told, of completing the journey. Word was passed then to transfer to the Charleston-bound train, and almost all of the travelers did this.

Here those who left on the Governor's special, got the first glimpses of the tragedy that had shaken a community, and grieved a state. There were two baggage cars, filled with wounded people. There was no excitement. There was no hysteria....mothers with children who might be near death, and they grieved in silence. There were people badly hurt, but they bore their suffering with scarcely an outcry. And so the train moved westward.

None tried to see how badly anyone was hurt, but nobody could help seeing some of the injured people. And what one saw was enough to make one's heart ache. Here there was a lad of 14 or so summers. An arm was in a splint. The head was bandaged and the bandage was red. But he was lucky. He could sit up. There was a young woman, lying desperately still, staring at the car's ceiling. Across the aisle there was a girl who couldn't have been more than 13 years old. A doctor was watching her closely. Two nurses were at her side. A mother stood over, smiled wanly, talked softly to her badly hurt little girl. And the child lay so still. A sweet little face. One couldn't help turning away.

Return Trip

There was no incident on the return trip. Just the monotonous rolling of car wheels. But just before Charleston was reached, Governor Gore did something. One had noticed how the governor had handled things all the way. Content to give orders and allow them to be fulfilled, Mr. Gore had sat silently to one side as travel to Whitesville was being made. Kanawha City reached, on the return trip, Governor Gore went to the rear of the train and came forward. He shook hands with almost everyone. And this was no hollow gesture. He thanked the members of the party individually. But he had no time for hand-shaking with a half dozen "dead heads" who had boarded the train at Cabin Creek Junction.

The saddest sight of all came when the special reached the C and O station here. Every ambulance in the city had been inched up against the west end platform. Almost all injured persons were taken out and placed on the platform before any were loaded into the ambulances. And such a sight it was. Cot after cot and stretcher after stretcher of heavily bandaged people, and every bandage was red.

Doctors on the special train were H. D. Hively, J. B. Lohan, Hugh Robins, T. M. Barber, S. C. Austin, R. R. Summers, Hugh Thompson, C. F. Hopson (colored).

Nurses on the special were Mathilde Coleman, Myrtle Dye, Elizabeth Mayer, Pear Morris, Hallie Dempsey, Alicia Mason.

Mr. and Mrs. Floyd Hieatt were aboard the special. Mr. Hieatt is connected with the Seng Creek company at Whitesville.

Resident doctors at Whitesville who bore the brunt of caring for the injured people:

J. L. Haddox, G. W. Ergenbright, R. L. Hunter, R. P. Alexander, C. A. Markell, C. N. Calfre and Kincaid.

U. K. Mordue, salesman for Mordue Collieries company at Whitesville, who was leaving Charleston for Chicago when he heard of the accident, boarded the governor's special.

Ben Powers, volunteer worker, was on the train, acted as secretary for the governor, passing messages, preparing a roster of physicians and nurses on the train.

Dead, Injured


William F. Slush, 67, of Milan, Mich.

Louise Clark, 18, of Whitesville.

Nellie K. Nichols, 8, of Whitesville.

Mrs. George Ward, 30, of Whitesville.

Essie Jarrell, 31, of Dorothy.

Frank McClellan, 44, colored, of Whitesville.


At Mountain State

Lester Crawford, about 23, of Whitesville, fractured skull and other broken bones, was unconscious for many hours.

Edward McCowan, of Jarrell's Valley, fractured skull and other bones broken.

Robert Ward, 4, of Whitesville, son of Mrs. George Ward, who was killed, arms and legs fractured, and a head injury.

Virginia DeFour, 14, of 1314 Washington street, this city, broken arm.

Mary Evans, 5, of Whitesville, broken leg.

Creola Foster, 14, of Whitesville, broken bones.

George Johnson, 26, colored, of Whitesville, head injuries.

Nina Kirtner, 12, of Whitesville, shock. Improving today.

Vincent Wheeler, 13, of Jarrell's Valley, broken bones.

Chester Adkinson, 20, of Jarrell's Valley, broken bones.

Carl Thompson, of Jarrell's Valley, broken bones.

At St. Francis

Evelyn Foster, 12, Jarrold's Valley, badly fractured arm, comdition serious, but resting comfortably.

Harry Meadows, 14, Tralee, fractured arm, resting comfortably.

At Charleston General

Jake Brown, Whitesville, fractured skull, jaw, arms, serious.

Sylvanus Trunan, Leevals, broken arms, resting nicely.

Elmer Scali, Orgas, fractured wrist, not serious.

Osie Harper, 9, of Kam, franctured skull, arm; very serious.

Blanche Murphy, 13, Hico, internal injuries; grave condition.

Chelsie Butcher, 18, Garrison, fractured skull, wrist, shoulder; very serious.

Arthur Williams, 19, Leevale, fractured arm; not serious.

E. V. Browning, 19, Leevale, head injuries; seriously hurt, but resting comfortably.

At Kanawha Valley

Arthur Brown, skull fractured, dislocated hip.

Jack Farrell, skull fractured, arms fractured.

Bethel Hunter, skull fractured, arm fractured.

Mrs. H. H. Hendricks, broken hip, other injuries.

Dorothy Carbia, treated and discharged.

Ray Thompson, face injuries.

Alfred Drumheller, fractured arm and face injuries.

Raymond Jarrell, fractured wrist.

James Griffin, strained back; not serious.

Alvin McClellan, head injuries.

Tetric Parali, strained back.

Nanini Parali, compound fracture of forearm.

Lawrence Zantine, eye and head injuries.

Mary and John Morton, fractured arms.

At Huntington Hospital

Inabelle Jarrell, head injuries.

Whitesville Is Saddened Town After Tragedy

Some Relatives of Nearly Every Family Dead or Hurt in Bridge Disaster

Funerals Being Arranged

After First Moment of Excitement Citizens Rally and Administer First Aid

By Roy Fuller.

Whitesville was a saddened community today. It was quite in contrast to the joyful crowd that was standing on a swinging footbridge Saturday night watching a carnival performer doing a "dare-devil" stunt on the banks of Big Coal river.

In almost every home of this country side there was sorrow. Many had relatives in the hospitals of Charleston, some hovering between life and death. Others were confined to the homes. These were the ones that received lesser injuries not necessitating a stay in the hospital. They received medical attention from the large number of doctors who volunteered their services.

The final and biggest act of the carnival which played in Whitesville all last week, the fire eating stunt of Harry McLain, was only partially carried out, fate having substituted for the trick the greatest tragedy the little town ever saw.

Crowd on Bridge

About one-fourth of the crowd, which represented by close kin almost every family in the town and adjoining countryside - it was Saturday night - had crowded upon the flimsy suspension bridge to see the circus dare devil set fire to his clothes, then to run and jump into the river to save himself from serious burning.

It is conservatively estimated that 100 persons were on the bridge, children, men and women.

After a flourish of the band, McLain saturated his clothing with oil. The crowd held its breath as he touched it off with a match. Everybody stood motionless, eyes on the fire eater. The oil flamed, and he bounded toward the river, the blaze fanning out behind, casting a wierd light on the dark river's edge and water. He passed under the bridge to leap into the deeper hole a few feet above the span. As one person, the crowd on the bridge shifted and leaned the other way to keep the actor in sight. Instantly a turnbuckle snapped, throwing the people headfirst into the bed of the river.

For a second there was not a move or sound. The people on the bridge were stunned by the fall and those on the banks by the shock of the sight. Then a mother screamed and broke the spell.

Then they rushed to the river, every parent feeling that his child might be in the melee. Screams and moans arose from the mass of people piled into the two feet of water, and worse, the rocky bed which skimed(?) the stream.

Sad Scene Follows

The scene following this was a sad one. But little light reached the river from the streets. Men and boys carried out the wounded, many of whom were knocked unconscious by the impact with the stony river bed. Mothers frantically searched for their children who were not with them at the time. The search of Mrs. J. H. Jarrell for her little girl, Inabelle, was typical.

She ran from one child to another, grabbing it as it was carried out, or searching the faces of those yet lying on the ground.

Making certain that Isabelle could not be found, she ran out into the town to see if she could be found, distressed lest she should have washed beyond the spot being searched. Running to the Shore store room, a few feet from the end of the bridge, there she found the child had been badly hurt and carried out of the river by someone else. Already ill, the little girl had been ordered home by the mother who remained at the carnival with her four other children. The illness, with the injuries about the head, made her condition very serious at first, but she had improved considerably before the special train arrived with the injured at Charleston.

According to Mrs. Jarrell, many of those who were not seriously hurt were stunned and had to be revived. The crowd fell on the fire eater, and stunned, he had to be carried to the river and immersed to quench the blaze.

The injured were laid out in cots hurriedly brought from the nearest houses. The store was soon overcrowded and they were stretched out on the ground. Dozens were badly lacerated. Legs and arms were broken.

Two were killed instantly, Nellie K. Nichols, age 8, and Mrs. George Ward, age 30.

All Is Excitement

At the time no one knew how many had been killed or hurt. The river bed was searched for additional dead. With about 35 seriously hurt and others in need of first aid, there was but one physician, Dr. Robert Hunter.

He and the two policemen took charge.

Miss Ada Coddington, of the state health department, was on the bridge, with her sister's father-in-law, William F. Slush, of Milan, Mich., who died a few minutes after the collapse of the bridge.

Aid Is Summoned

As quickly as possible, Miss Coddington called to Charleston and told the state police and newspapers of the calamity. Governor Gore was notified, who immediately called out he special relief train. R. M. Lambie, chief mine inspector, came to Whitesville by automobile, making the trip possibly quicker than any other. In a little more than an hour after the call reached Charleston, both Mr. Lambie and Major O'Connor, of the state polic force, were there. Most of the doctors made the trip in an hour and a half.

First aid was administered by those most practiced in the coal camp, the state police and Dr. Hunter, until the physicians began to arrive from Charleston.

The state police said the crowd was the quietest and most orderly they had ever seen at any accident.

After the first moment of excitement, the people went grimly about the business of caring for the injured. The shock, however, showed in the vague reports about the number killed, and even the state police, more or less hardened to working in accidents, believed three hours after the bridge fell that the death toll was almost twice the actual number. It was impossible to find out, by questioning the crowd, where anybody or anything was, except the bridge and the makeshift hospital.

A mystery was created by the report on the tongue of everybody that two babies had been found drowned in the river after the injured had been carried out. Yet no one had names or facts to substantiate the report.

Special Train

About three o'clock yesterday morning the special train was made up at Whitesville. Doctors and state health department officials canvassed the entire town for the injured, and those who had been carried home were brought again to the bridge and taken across the river. The scene was like one behind a battle line. Uniformed policemen and volunteer squads picked up the cots and waded the river a few feet above the bridge. A line of men, their way lighted by miners' carbide lamps, reached across the river at the first relay.

Bloody coverlets, pillows and sheets were on every cot. Bandaged heads and arms, made more ghastly by the brilliant red of the anitiseptics, made the sight sickening. Odors of medicine and carbide gas followed the procession.

A baggage car was filled with cots and behind this a half-baggage-half-passenger coach was used. The stretchers carrying three children were laid on top of the backs of the seats.

The baggage car carried nearly 20 cots.

Some were badly hurt and others by their sides were uninjured. Dorothy Carbia who was sent to Charleston on the special train was standing by the side of her sister who was unscratched.

Some of those who were but little hurt lay stunned for a few minutes, by all appearances badly hurt, but they soon revived and walked away, only bruised.

Wounded Helped Others

Others fatally wounded did not realize they were in a serious condition. Frank McClellan, negro, of Whitesville, one of the dead, is said to have assisted Miss Coddington in extricating herself from the pile of people and then upon reaching the street, fell to the ground and died a few minutes later. His skull was fractured.

Nellie K, Nichols, 8, and Louis Clark, 18, two of the victims, were half sisters.

It is told that one man caught on the bridge and dropped feet foremost into the river and was unhurt.

One of the nurses on the train, Miss Ethetta Russell, has just recently graduated into the profession and her first emergency call was a task to test the mettle of a veteran. She met the occasion as calmly as if hospital trains were an every day affair.

A weak turnbuckle on one of the cables caused the bridge to topple over and spill its load, it is believed. Examination yesterday showed the break in the cable to be in the turnbuckle, where rust showed an old break in the iron.

The bridge, erected by Boone county, had been condemned last spring and later it was repaired. The turnbuckle apparently passed unnoticed.

Crowds had gathered on it each evening during the week when the fire-eater did his act, it was said at Whitesville, but the Saturday night crowd was much greater.

The two state policemen present at the time of the accident had begun to clear off part of the crowd when the cable broke, they told a representative of the Daily Mail. Four persons had been removed.


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