BEAN STATION – Rescue workers who responded to the 1972 collision of a Greyhound bus and a tractor trailer in Bean Station returned to the scene Saturday, June 20 to meet one of the survivors.
After a loud boom caused by the impact of the passenger bus and semi-truck colliding head on, the sound of a baby crying reportedly filled the air.
One of the first to respond to the scene was Bean Station resident Jesse Coffey, who lives on the hill above the site of the crash. Coffey told reporters he was in bed sleeping when the sound of the crash woke him.
“It sounded like a case of dynamite going off,” Coffey said.
He rushed down the hill from his home to the scene of the crash.
As he approached the mangled bus, he said, “I heard a baby crying and some guy hollering, ‘Help me, help me.’”
“All I remember was the motor running and the baby crying and the stillness. It was a nightmare,” Thea Jackson of Mobile Alabama, a passenger on the bus, told the Citizen Tribune at the time.
Susan Truluck was that baby. She was five months old when the tragic accident left her lying in the road alone, crying in the aftermath of the collision. Her mother, Mary Dunbar, died in the crash, along with 13 other victims. Both the bus and truck drivers died in the crash, along with 12 of 27 passengers on the bus.
Truluck, a resident of Forsythe, Georgia, traveled to the scene of the deadly crash Saturday, June 20 to meet with those who responded to the scene 48 years ago, and to attempt to find answers to questions she said have plagued her all her life. She said when the crash occurred, her mom was taking her to Virginia to meet her grandmother for the first time. She said the day before they departed, her mom had told her dad she had a bad feeling about the trip. She said her dad had reassured her mom, and the next day she and her mom boarded a bus, headed for Virginia.
Some of those who responded to the crash 48 years ago met with Truluck Saturday, including longtime emergency service worker Jimmy Peoples, J. Satterfield and Truman Coffey. Jim McGinnis, who wrote the song “11W Bloody Highway,” brought along his guitar and performed the song for those in attendance. Larry Parnell, the owner of a 1955 GMC PD-4501 Scenic Cruiser double-deck bus, the same model as that in the crash, brought the bus to the meet-and-greet for attendees to explore.
Truman Coffey’s son, Les Coffey, presented Truluck with pieces of wreckage from the crash he found while metal detecting in the area of the crash, as well as an original copy of a May 14, 1972 Citizen Tribune containing coverage of the crash.
Truman Coffey said after Truluck was recovered from the accident scene, Jessee Coffey’s wife had wrapped her in a blanket and took her up to their house until she could be taken to the hospital. Because there was no way to identify Truluck, she was called “Baby Girl Petunia.”
Despite having been ejected from the bus, Truluck said she suffered no injuries from the crash, not even a scratch.
Truluck said her dad was initially notified his wife and child had both died in the crash. When he saw a newspaper article accompanied by a photo of a pair of baby shoes, which had been tied together and placed on a highway marker at the scene of the crash, she said he recognized the shoes.
A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report detailing the investigation of the crash states the crash occurred at 5:35 a.m. when the eastbound Greyhound bus attempted to pass an automobile.
A driver traveling ahead of the bus with cruise control set at 55 mph reported having disengaged the cruise control and passing a slow-moving vehicle ahead of him. He reported seeing the bus also pass the car in his rearview mirror, and noted he observed the wheels of the bus cross over the white stripe marking the outer edge of the westbound lane while passing the vehicle. The bus then followed close behind the automobile. After crossing a bridge and entering a slight curve, the bus moved into the westbound lane to pass.
“As the front of the bus pulled even with the center of the automobile door, a westbound truck came into view around a curve,” the report states.
A tractor trailer traveling eastbound about 250 feet ahead of the automobile blocked the automobile driver’s view of the westbound tractor trailer, and may have also impeded the bus driver’s view of the oncoming truck. The automobile driver reported he attempted to accelerate to give the bus room to move back into the eastbound lane, but did not gain speed fast enough. The bus driver reportedly made no attempt to get back into the correct lane, and the bus collided with the truck nearly head-on, in the westbound lane. The NTSB report states the lack of evasive action by the bus driver “is puzzling… indeed it is difficult to understand why the bus struck the truck at all.”
The automobile driver reported seeing the left front of the bus strike the left front of the tractor-trailer. A hitchhiker riding in the automobile also reported witnessing the collision. Following the impact, the bus travelled 86 feet and came to rest right side up in the eastbound lane. The semi-truck and trailer were destroyed by fire.
The NTSB report states, “Six adults, a child and two infants were found outside the bus after it came to rest. Four of the adults and two infants were on the pavement adjacent to the left side of the bus. Two other adults were found under the rear of the bus, and the child was found 10 feet south and five feet west of the right rear corner of the bus. Another passenger, an adult, was seen falling from the damaged left side of the bus after it had stopped.”
Several passengers reported waking up outside the bus, with no knowledge of how they got there. Eight to 10 passengers remained in the rear half, and two other passengers were trapped in the front section of the bus. Both the truck driver and the bus driver died, and of the 27 passengers on the bus, 12 died and 14 were injured.
According to the NTSB, the driver of the automobile stopped and backed his vehicle to the scene of the crash. He dropped off the hitchhiker with instructions to help however possible, and traveled to a truck stop where he notified the telephone operator about the crash. He returned to the scene, picked up the hitchhiker and left. Two days later, the hitchhiker called the owner of the truck that was involved in the crash to assure the owner the bus had struck the truck, despite what had been reported in news accounts of the crash. The hitchhiker didn’t identify himself, but was able to provide information about the driver of the automobile from a business card. The NTSB was unsuccessful in locating the hitchhiker.
At the time of departure from Knoxville, the bus driver and passengers had been transferred to a different bus due to a mechanical problem with the front door of the bus the driver had been scheduled to take over. The transfer delayed the departure of the bus to Roanoke, Virginia by one hour and 15 minutes. Three bus passengers reported the driver had been driving somewhat fast, perhaps to make up time. However, none of those passengers reported he had been driving recklessly. The average speed of the bus to the accident scene was 50 mph.
The bus driver’s medical history indicated he had a possible heart condition and diabetes, which could have been a factor in the bus not taking evasive action to prevent the collision. The NTSB reported there was no evidence the medical condition of the driver contributed to the crash.
At the time of the crash, a four-inch wide broken white line marked the highway. The NTSB concluded the area of the highway where the crash occurred warranted double yellow centerlines on the highway.
The report states, “Had the road been clearly marked with these lines, the bus driver probably would not have tried to pass the automobile.”