Film depicts an Appalachian tragedy

Documentary recalls 1958 school bus crash that killed 26 children in Floyd County

By Rich Copley

Every once in a while, filmmaker Michael Crisp wonders what would have happened if his mother and uncles had not moved out of Prestonsburg in 1955. Would he be here? Or would they have been on the bus?

“The wreck happened in 1958,” Crisp says. “My mom grew up in an area of Prestonsburg and Floyd County called Buffalo that would have been on the bus route. The bus route covered four little communities, and she and a few of my uncles were of an age where they probably would have been on the bus.”

The bus was a school bus that plunged into the swollen Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River on Feb. 28, 1958, killing 26 children and the bus driver. More than 50 years later, it remains the worst school bus accident in U.S. history.

While Crisp was growing up, his mom and dad, who came from nearby Martin, occasionally would pull out newspaper clippings and talk about the tragedy. Crisp says it would send a chill through him, but over the years, it also fired his creativity.

The Georgetown resident is an entrepreneurial entertainer and artist who has been involved in businesses such as a disc-jockey service, an improv comedy troupe, bands and a wedding videography service.

“Winter is kind of a slow time for wedding videography,” says Andrew Moore, Crisp’s partner in that endeavor. “That’s when Mike starts getting ideas.”

One of those ideas became a film about the 1958 tragedy.

After two years of work, The Very Worst Thing premiered Friday in Prestonsburg and will be shown in Lexington on Wednesday night at The Kentucky Theatre.

In the beginning, Crisp was inspired by a 2008 article by Herald-Leader reporter Cassondra Kirby, who now works for the Kentucky State Police; Jackie Branham Hall’s 2004 book Portrait of a Disaster; and other records of the tragedy.

He says he decided that “this deserves to be a documentary to where it can be shown and the rest of the U.S. can learn more about this.”

Crisp and Moore worked for two years on the film, primarily composed of interviews with people connected to the tragedy, and press and personal photographs, many courtesy of Hall.

Only one of the 21 survivors of the crash who are still alive agreed to talk to Crisp and Moore on camera, Martha Burchett Marsh, who now lives in Columbus, Ohio.

“Most of the survivors still have very deep survivor’s guilt,” Crisp says. “They feel that it’s something of an affront to talk about it on camera because they are still close to people in the area who lost children.”

Marsh gives a vivid account of the scene on the bus that cold and cloudy day.

About 7 a.m., the bus was following its morning route from the mining town of Cow Creek to Prestonsburg. It approached a tow truck trying to pull a pickup out of mud along the side of the road. For reasons never determined, the bus’ driver, John Alex DeRossett, 27, didn’t slow down. The bus struck the wrecker, knocking it more than 60 feet. The bus ran off the road and then plunged into the river, which normally was about 10 feet deep but had swollen to more than 30 feet after days of rain.

Marsh’s description is lucid and matter-of-fact, though she occasionally gets choked up recalling scenes like children in the freezing water grasping at one another trying to get out of the bus.

Other witnesses in the film include friends and relatives of victims, people who worked in the rescue operation, a minister who presided over seven of the 27 funerals, and people intimately associated with reverberations of the tragedy more than 50 years later.

“There would be nights I would be working on editing the film, hearing these awful stories over and over again, and my son would be playing right behind me, tugging on me,” Moore says. “I found I sometimes had to step away from the emotion of it and not put myself in their places.”

Crisp, who has a 4-year-old son, says, “Every time we heard a new story, it personally affected us. … I never hugged my son so hard as after days of shooting this.”

Moore says he and Crisp chose to focus on those stories as opposed to dissecting the accident. “Details of the accident tend to muddy each other when you set them side by side,” he says.

The reason for the crash has never been determined. Theories include mechanical failure, medical emergency or even that the crash just could not have been avoided. Those are presented in the film, but Moore says the filmmakers put their focus on personal aspects of the tragedy, such as stories of students who heroically left safety to help friends and siblings only to die themselves.

They also looked at the crash’s enduring effects, including the creation of the Floyd County Emergency and Rescue Squad, formed shortly after the accident.

After area premieres, Crisp and Moore hope to enter The Very Worst Thing in film festivals to get it seen by more people and maybe garner some notoriety.

But they say they have achieved their primary goal.

Says Moore: “I think everyone who participated was highly conscious of wanting to get this story down and providing a lasting document of what happened.”

Says Crisp: “I consider this the community’s picture and Appalachia’s film.”

Story from the Lexington Herald Leader.


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