© Jerry F. Couch
SEPTEMBER 6, 1977 is a day that will never be forgotten by those who witnessed an incredible chain of events in front of Porter Auto Sales in St. Paul. That was the day a tractor-trailer loaded with railroad ties lost its brakes on St. Paul Hill and came tearing across the old Bickley Bridge, crashing into 14 cars and demolishing the front of the home of Mrs. Ethel Vance. Miraculously, no one was killed. It was not the first accident of its kind – and it wouldn’t be the last.
The following account of the accident appeared in the September 8, 1977 edition of the Clinch Valley Times.
Truck Accident Involves 14 Vehicles, Injures Four People
A tractor-trailer truck loaded with railroad ties apparently lost its brakes coming west on highway 58 into St. Paul on Tuesday Morning at about 9:30, and the subsequent havoc resulted in four injured persons, eight totally wrecked vehicles, six other damaged vehicles, and damage to Bickley Bridge, Porter Auto Sales Used Car portico, the Auto Parts building, and the Vance home.
The truck, owned by Superior Motor Express, Inc., Gold Hill, NC, was driven by Jerry Wayne Earnhardt, 21, also of Gold Hill. Earnhardt told CV Times reporters on Tuesday afternoon that he had geared his truck down when he saw the warning sign at the top of the long grade on 58. He then said that on the last curve before the four-lane narrows to become two-lane, his brakes failed, and he lost control of the truck after it hit the first car.
A probable reconstruction of the accident, based on damage sustained and on eyewitness reports, follows: While on the Bickley Bridge, the truck ran into the rear of a Chevrolet Monte Carlo driven by James K. Meredith, Whiteville, NC, also traveling west into St. Paul. Pushing the Monte Carlo, the truck hit a Chrysler driven by Kemper Robinson, heading east on the bridge, and then hit the concrete north side of the Bickley Bridge, causing considerable damage to it.
The truck then rammed the Monte Carlo into the rear of a 1975 Cadillac signaling a left turn from 58 onto the Porter lot. The Cadillac, driven by C. D. Porter, was sideswiped by the truck, and was then sandwiched between the truck and a dark gray 1955 Ford pickup truck owned by Carl Reed, Nickelsville, which then piled into two new cars – a 1977 Nova and a 1977 Oldsmobile, in front of Porter Auto Sales. The Monte Carlo was apparently thrown aside after hitting the Cadillac, and it veered to the right, striking and damaging a car on Porter’s Used Car lot. That car rammed its neighbor, another used car, which slammed into and bent a metal pole used as a support for the used car structure.
In the meantime, the truck kept on going, heading toward Auto Parts. Before it finally came to a stop, it hit a 1972 Pinto, owned by Porter’s Used Cars; a 1963 Chevrolet pickup truck owned by Blaine E. Austin, Castlewood; and a 1972 pickup truck owned by Charles A. Long. The truck then flipped over onto its side, hitting a 1976 Pontiac owned by James Castle, and crashed down upon Macel Phillips’ 1965 Oldsmobile, crushing it and destroying the right front side of the Vance home next to Auto Parts, which also sustained structural damage due to the impact of the flipping truck.
Several Castlewood Rescue Squad units converged on the scene and took four persons to area hospitals. C. D. Porter was taken to Russell County Medical Center in Lebanon where he was admitted with broken ribs and cuts. The truck driver, Jerry Earnhardt, was also taken to Russell County Medical Center, was treated for bruises and abrasions, and released. Carl Reed, Nickelsville, was taken to Bristol Memorial Hospital for lacerations and a possible back injury, and James Kenneth Meredith, driver of the Monte Carlo, was also taken to Bristol with multiple abrasions, lacerations, and bruises. He was treated and released. Reed’s condition was not known at press time.
Total damage has been unofficially estimated at approximately $75,000, including damage to the buildings and bridge, and damage sustained by 14 vehicles. Totally demolished were the tractor-trailer truck, the Cadillac, the Monte Carlo, the 1976 Pontiac, the 1965 Oldsmobile, the 1972 Pinto, the 1963 Chevrolet pickup, and the gray 1955 Ford pickup truck. The other six sustained various amounts of damage.
Bystanders expressed amazement that no one was killed in the massive wreckage which occurred in Tuesday morning’s accident, and several recalled the 1972 death in a similar truck braking-failure accident.
The St. Paul Police Department, the St. Paul Fire Department, the Castlewood Rescue Squad, and Hamilton’s Wrecker Service were all on the scene within minutes. The cleaning-up process last until well past noon.
Earnhardt was charged with failure to maintain control of his vehicle. He was free on bond Tuesday afternoon. St. Paul Police Officer Jerry Maine is conducting the investigation.
St. Paul Mayor James A. Muse, concerned because of the many truck accidents which have occurred at the same site in the past few years, contacted John Turner of the Bristol office of the Virginia Department of Highways shortly after Tuesday morning’s accident. Muse told the CV Times that Turner said he would have an engineer in St. Paul on Monday morning to consider possible safety precautions which can be taken to prevent further accidents of this type.