Having no children of his own, 49-year-old Leroy Campbell enjoyed the laughter and squeals of the children he drove to and from school each day, but it was their screams of terror that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Campbell had a perfect driving record and he had driven a school bus for the Garrett County Board of Education for eight years by 1959. He picked up children in the Loch Lynn and Mountain Lake Park areas and delivered them to Southern High School and Dennett Road Elementary every day school was in session.
On the morning of September 10, 1959, Campbell had picked up 27 students and was heading towards the schools where he would drop them off. As he was crossing the railroad tracks at Route 560 in Loch Lynn, the bus stalled.
He was attempting to restart the engine when the bells crossing lights started flashing and the bells started ringing. Campbell looked up and saw the eastbound Diplomat passenger train from St. Louis fast approaching on its way to Washington.
Roy Dixon, a 12-year-old student on the bus, said later, “I’ll never forget the look on Mr. Campbell’s face. He looked like he was scared to death. But he’s a good driver and he helped to get some of the kids off the bus.”
Campbell ordered the children off the bus through the front door. Campbell said the rear exit was not opened because it would have let the children out right on the railroad tracks.
“Everybody knew the train was going to hit us. Everybody wanted to get out. Everybody rushed to the doors of the bus all at one. One girl, she got stuck in the door. I didn’t know what to do. Finally, somebody pushed her out,” Roy said. His story is part of a display about the accident at the Garrett County Museum of Transportation.
Delores Shaffer was the girl pinned in the door until someone pulled her free. She and eight other children managed to get off the bus.
Engineer Otto Droege saw the bus and thought it would cross over the tracks. When he realized it was stalled, he applied the emergency brakes of the train. The train lurched and the brakes squealed.
Roy said, “I grabbed [my younger sister, Gladys] by the hand and we jumped. I ran down the track and saw fire flying from the wheels of the engine. Then I looked back and saw the train hit. There was a big cloud of dust, then kids came flying out through the windows.”
The train quickly slowed from 50 mph (the legal limit), but it was still going 20 mph when it hit the bus and pushed it down the track until it wrapped around a utility pole.
“The train hit and it jerked me,” Mary Ellen Itnyre, a 14-year-old student on the bus said later. “I was knocked under the front seat. There was a lot of dust and it was dark and I thought the train was carrying me away with it. All I could hear after the crash was the moaning and groaning from the rest of the kids in the school bus.”
Phyllis Paugh, lived in an apartment next to crash scene. When she heard the crash, she ran outside to see what had happened. “When I got outside, I got a little weak. There were children screaming…some had blood on them…they were crying, and there was a lot of confusion. The children’s bodies were scattered along the track. Some were hurt, but some of them looked dead. They were lying along the tracks from the crossing where the train hit, down to where the bus had stopped,” Paugh said.
Seven ambulances and two station wagons quickly responded to the scene. Some of the vehicles couldn’t speed while transporting the children to the hospital because they were so seriously injured that they needed to be given blood transfusions while en route, according to the Cumberland Evening Times. Injured children were taken to Garrett Memorial Hospital, but the available beds there were quickly filled. Children were also sent to Sacred Heart Hospital in Cumberland and Preston Memorial in Kingwood.
Roy was scared, not only about what had happened to the bus, but he couldn’t find his older sister, Frances. He feared that she was dead, but he later saw her at Garrett Memorial being unloaded from an ambulance.
Roy, Frances, and Gladys were lucky. Seven children weren’t so lucky. Janet Deem, 12; Nancy Deem, 15; Merle Harvey, 11; Nancy Harvey, 12; Richard Hinkle, 11; Lee Hoffman, 11; Shirley Lee, 12, all died in the accident.
Frances Dixon was among the 11 children who were seriously injured. She had a broken back, a broken collar bone, a broken cheek bone, and a torn Achilles tendon. She spent the next four months in a body cast, but she survived.
You can learn more about the accident from the display at the Garrett County Transportation Museum.
More Garrett County, MD, stories:
- The champion coal miner of the world
- LOOKING BACK 1953: CIA doses men with LSD at Deep Creek Lake (Part 1)
- LOOKING BACK 1953: CIA doses men with LSD at Deep Creek Lake (Part 2)
- LOOKING BACK 1917: Bank robbers get away with a haul from small town bank