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Bus crash 65-years-ago between Waco and Temple was “burning hell”

(Texas Collection photo)
(Texas Collection photo)(KWTX)
Published: Aug. 3, 2017 at 6:21 PM CDT
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Early in the morning of Aug. 4, 1952, two Greyhound buses collided head-on in a fiery crash just south of Waco and in the wake at least 28 died in what one reporter called a “burning hell.”

The event ranks as the deadliest two-bus accident in U.S. history and one of the deadliest crashes of any kind in Texas.

One bus had just left Waco headed for San Antonio, the other had pulled out of the terminal in Temple headed for Waco and then on to Dallas.

But when the buses reached Lorena, at around 4 a.m., one of them crossed the highway center line and within seconds slammed head into the other, creating an inferno that killed both drivers and incinerated at least 26 others.

Police who went to the scene said bodies were strewn all over the highway, even into the roadside ditches.

Compton Funeral Home, in Waco, was tasked with recovering bodies from the scene, some of them a leg or arm or hand at a time.

But the tragic scene also made heroes out of several soldiers and airmen who risked their lives to save other passengers from the hellish inferno.

Most of the military men on the southbound bus had just settled in for a nap on their way back to duty in San Antonio.

One account from the Waco Tribune said: “That 25 passengers survived what the first police officers on the scene termed “a vision of Hades” was deemed a miracle by many.”

Another from reporter Reba Campbell said: “In all the burning Hell, an unknown hero, a Negro soldier, returned time and time again to the burning buses and knocked out windows to drag passengers to safety.”

Had those men not acted, the death toll would have been higher.

Campbell reported that several survivors lauded the courage of their rescuers, who had initially been thrown free but chose to continue crawling through the flames to aid strangers.

Truthfully, the actual number of those who died as a result of the crash may never be known.

Even today accounts number the dead at 27, 28 or 29.

Waco radio broadcast pioneer Goodson McKee was first to tell the story to an audience who was shocked by the news and demanded McKee go to the scene and provide live reports.

McKee would later write: “Throughout the day, as news bureaus and radio stations learned of the tragic event, in which 29 persons had died, and 23 injured were injured, everyone was calling for on-the-scene coverage and live reports.

“In the alley (behind the funereal home) were hearses and forensics investigators, police officers and many figures on stretchers.

“I remember the odor of burned bodies.

“We learned both drivers had been killed. Both were Waco residents,” McKee wrote.

Young Waco father Milburn Berry Herring, just 24, was at the wheel of the northbound bus on what apparently was only his fifth day on the job.

He’d just recently signed on at Greyhound after leaving his job at Jones Fine Bread Company, of Waco, where he’d been a shipment driver.

Another Waco man, B.E. “Billy” Malone, 23, was driving the southbound bus and he had less than six months experience.

One of Malone’s passengers, Leonor Morales Zamudio, who was standing in the aisle, shouted “Look out!” at the glaring oncoming headlights, but it was too late.

She and her new husband, long-time Elite Café cook Hilario Zamudio, were killed in the collision, according to Tribune-Herald archives.

The Interstate Commerce Commission, in a subsequent investigation, said that Herring, who’d already had worked several cross-state runs in his first four days, likely dozed off just north of Lorena when his bus crossed the center line to strike Malone’s vehicle head-on.

Scores of ambulances rushed to the scene, along with fire trucks and police, but by the time rescuers got there not much was left except a huge pile of rubble and bodies, or parts of bodies, and the 23 survivors that soldiers and airmen saved.

A genealogy website recounts the crash and lists comments from several people who had family who were killed or injured in the grinding crash.

J. Whitbeck Lewis wrote: “I overheard that all they found of her (his grandmother) was a piece of her navy blue dress with red button....they scooped up the ashes around it and that's what was in the closed casket.”

Rhonda Dandridge, wrote “Leticia, the young negro soldier who saved your mom on that bus was my grandfather, Emmual Robinson. My mother was 5 years old at the time.”

Dandridge said Thursday in a telephone interview from her North Carolina home that her grandfather gave his life trying to save others.

“He was riding in the back of the bus and was thrown free in the crash,” Dandridge said.

“He went back in to save other people.”

“Some other soldiers said they saw him coming out of the bus carrying someone but suddenly the flames rose up and engulfed him,” Dandridge said.

“All they found of him was his dog tags.”

Dandridge, now 50, said her great grandmother, Robinson’s mother, told her family stories about Robinson and his selfless acts but otherwise they didn’t talk about the tragedy much.

“I heard about it as a kid but over the years I pieced together bits and pieces of information,” she said.

Dandridge, herself, is a Marine veteran and has a closeness for her granddad’s selfless courage.