School teacher's mistake causes fire which claims lives of three children
By FRANK BOYETT, The Gleaner
Thomas J. Bryant, the teacher, had arrived early from his home in Henderson and kindled a fire in the stove to ward off the chill. He then placed a water kettle on the stove to heat.
Little did Bryant know it at the time, but he had set the timer on a bomb that was to engulf the schoolroom in flames. Three children died in what is -- to the best of my knowledge -- the only fatal school fire that has ever occurred in Henderson County.
The kettle, you see, did not contain water. It contained oil for the lamps used to light the school. The mistake was understandable. The county school district had been renting a lodge building owned by the Race Creek Baptist Church because the original Race Creek School building had burned the previous year.
Sometime during the weekend before the fatal fire a lodge meeting had been held in the building, which was also known as the Gas Switch School. Someone obviously had been refilling the lamps and had left the kettle filled with oil.
"The teacher had placed the kettle on the stove, believing its contents to be water," The Gleaner reported, "and when it became ignited he attempted to carry it from the building. The flames burned his hands, however, and he dropped the kettle.
"An explosion ensued, wrapping the interior of the room in flames" and trapping 11 children inside. "Bryant ran outside, his hair and clothing aflame. Attracted by his screams, the section hands (from an L&N Railroad crew working nearby) rushed up and opened the windows, helping the children to leap through them."
Ten children made it through the windows with the help of the railroad hands. The child trapped inside was Isom and Ellen Ray's five-year-old daughter Carrie.
The unnamed section hands plunged into the inferno, pulling the little girl out of the flames, but their heroism was in vain. She was so badly burned that she died in an ambulance on her way to the hospital in Henderson.
Her older brother, Albert Ray, 8, was also taken to the hospital, where he died the following afternoon. The third victim was Otis Banks, 10, the son of Clarence and Sophia Banks. He died in the hospital after suffering nearly two days of agony.
As bad as it was, the tragedy could have been much, much worse.
"Thirty-eight children were enrolled at the school, but as classes had not yet opened, only 11 were inside the building when the flames broke out," The Gleaner reported. "A number of others were playing on the school grounds."
The school was located on U.S. 60-East at the L&N Railroad crossing about five miles from Henderson; at that time there was no fire department situated to quickly provide aid.
"Two trucks from the Henderson fire department responded to an alarm phoned from the Lee Baskett farm, across the road from the school, but the building was a mass of flames on their arrival. The Race Creek church, situated a few feet from the school, was saved, however."
That church burned in 1966 and the congregation rebuilt in 1968 at Plum and Green streets as the New Race Creek Baptist Church.
The part of this story I can't get out of my mind is the school teacher. Bryant apparently was a little sensitive about his age. He was 71 at the time of the fire, but told the newspaper he was only 65. He died in 1943 at the age of 84, and left no children behind.
I try to imagine the last 13 years of his life. Anyone with more than a few decades under their belt surely has things in life they wish they could go back and do over again. I know I have. That fire was probably Bryant's top choice.
It wasn't his fault, though. How could he have known someone had filled that kettle with lamp oil? But that rational thought probably was little solace against the corrosive guilt that surely must have wracked him late at night when sleep escaped him. I hope he's found the peace he deserves.
100 years ago
The recently annexed area of Audubon -- more commonly called the East End nowadays -- was flooded with light as the city turned on the new streetlights that had been promised, according to a 1905 article in The Gleaner.
Eighteen lights were originally installed, fulfilling a promise made when annexation of Audubon was first proposed, but the system was set up to allow a total of 50 streetlights in that area of town.
50 years ago
The Gleaner was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for its comprehensive coverage of the three murders Leslie Irvin had been accused of the previous spring, the newspaper reported in 1955.
The paper didn't win journalism's top prize, of course, but it did win a citation from the Associated Press Managing Editors Association "for such fast and excellent coverage of a triple slaying that gave the Associated Press one of its longest news beats of the year."
25 years ago
The election of Ronald Reagan as president gave the first indication that Henderson County's proposed synthetic fuels plants were not going to be built, according to a 1980 article in The Gleaner.
George Whittington, former chair of the Henderson County Republican Party, said Reagan's election meant that promoters of the synfuel plants "will have to move slow in planning for the projects because they don't know what Reagan's reactions will be."
Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2006 HCH&GS