America’s Deadliest Single-Vehicle Crash

Letcher County Accident Claimed Eleven

By Stephen D. Bowling

Hexie Maxie’s life was never the same. How could it be? He could feel the heat and smell the smoke for the rest of his life. The car sat in the ditch line with his entire family inside. He never fully recovered, and who would?

What started as a fun car ride on Highway 119 over Pine Mountain on July 31, 1954, ended a little after noon in the worst single-car accident ever recorded in American history, according to National Safety Council records. When the flames died down, the two-door automobile held the bodies of eleven people- three adults, a teenager, and seven small children.

Hexie Maxie told authorities that he and his family, his sister, her husband, Tom Brown, and their family, and a friend went for a ride over the mountain to Line Fork to see the coal mine where Brown and Maxie were hired recently. Brown was proud to show off his 1941 Buick, which he bought the day before the trip. The families all piled into the two-doored sedan. 

About thirty minutes into the ride from their home at Millstone and just after crossing the crest of Pine Mountain, Brown hit the brakes and attempted to slow the car as it headed down the roadway into a curve, but the pedal went to the floor. He tried to pump the brakes several times, but the car did not respond. Maxie later remembered Brown “pumping and pumping” the brakes with no effect. 

Brown, then about 7 miles southeast of Whitesburg, swerved the car into a ditch to slow the descent and avoid a 60-foot plunge over the hillside. The vehicle struck the cliff on the passenger’s side. According to Willie Craft, who witnessed the accident, the collision jammed the right door handle when it hit the hillside. The car continued across the roadway before it struck the cliff on the other side of the road. The car flipped onto its left side, trapping the occupants inside.

The gasoline tank of the car burst into flames. Mrs. Butler Wright, who lived near the crash site, said she heard the crash and then the screams. “Then the tank exploded and I didn’t hear the screams anymore,” she said with tears. She told officials that the screams from inside the car stopped “less than two minutes” after the fire started. 

The Lexington Herald was the first newspaper to run photos of the crashed vehicle when its editors published this image on August 1, 1954.

Sergeant Chester Potter of the Kentucky State Police was one of the first law enforcement officials on the scene. He found Maxie lying in the roadway with several people standing nearby who had stopped to help. Maxie, whose clothing had been burned off his body, told Sergeant Potter that he climbed out a window, possibly the rear window, and had tried to get his family out. A witness said that Maxie found an ax in the ditch and was trying to chop open the door of the car when the flames knocked him to the ground. He passed out “due to the shock.”   

The Whitesburg Fire Department responded to the scene as soon as the call came into the station, but it was too late. Chief Raymond Day and his volunteers could only hose out the small fires that burned in the car’s cab. Chief Day described the scene as “a mass of burning flesh” and “a fiery tomb for those poor people inside.” He said the bodies were “jammed against the doors and windows” where they tried to escape the flames. 

From his hospital bed at the Fleming Hospital, Hexie Maxie told the Coroner, Mrs. Archie Craft, and Craft Funeral Home officials of his desire for the burial of his family and the Browns. Maxie informed the staff at the hospital that he did not want them to treat him because he “did not want to live” because he had “nothing to live for since his little children and good wife were gone.”   

A photographer from The Lexington Herald gained access to Hexie Maxie’s hospital room and snapped a photo of him that ran on page 1 of the August 3, 1954 edition of the paper.

People from across Letcher County came to the funeral home to see the bodies, but the remains were so badly burned that the funeral home “only guessed as to the identities based on body size and sex.” More than 1,500 people came through the Craft Funeral Home to view the bodies, but funeral home officials closed the wood and cloth caskets for viewing. The Maxies and Browns were placed two in a coffin with Elsie (Collins) Maxie, 30, and the remains of her daughter, Louise, 10 months, in her arms. Betty Sue Maxie, age 4, and Ellis Ray Maxie, 2, were in the same casket. Tom Brown, age 44, and his son, Hayden, 4, were placed in one coffin for burial. Mrs. Lula (Maxie) Brown, 38, was buried with their daughter, Geraldine, age 2. Christine Brown, 11, and Shirley Jean Brown, age 7, were buried together. Martha Gibson, a family friend who had joined them for the trip, was placed in a casket provided by her family.   

More than 150 people answered the call and volunteered to dig the large grave that would hold the caskets of the Maxie and Brown families in the Shea’s Fork Cemetery near McRoberts. Maxie asked the men to leave room for him next to his wife because he expected and hoped to die since “there’s no point in living now.”

A slow procession of four hearses left the Craft Funeral Home and made its way to Shea’s Fork on Monday, August 2. The funeral was conducted at 10:00 a.m. as a soft rain fell. Rev. Bob Sexton of the Whitaker Freewill Baptist Church at Neon officiated with the help of Revs. Ed Hall and Lloyd Pike. An estimated crowd of more than 500 huddled under umbrellas as the five coffins were placed in the open grave on a small flat area in the cemetery and covered by the large group of men in attendance. 

Martha Gibson, age 16, was claimed by her parents, Mrs. and Mrs. Johnny Gibson. She was buried on the same day in the Big Branch Cemetery near their home on Line Fork. 

A tow truck driver hauled Tom Brown’s 13-year-old car to a garage at Millstone, and thousands of morbidly curious visited the burned-out hull as it sat on display for more than a week. They described the smell of burnt flesh still coming from the vehicle. Many others drove up the winding roadway of Highway 119 to the spot on Pine Mountain where the accident occurred.

The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg ran the story as their headline on August 5, 1954. They included several pictures of the car and the aftermath of the fire.

Hexie Maxie languished in the hospital, being treated against his wishes for burns over most of his body by Dr. A. B. Carter and his staff. Doctors told the Associated Press that Maxie would not live through the night. With his body covered in bandages, his condition steadily improved. Three days later, the medical staff upgraded Maxie to a 50-50 chance of survival. On August 19, the hospital announced that Maxie’s progress was “very good” and that he was “out of danger as far as his injuries were concerned.” Dr. Carter told a reporter that he believed the sole survivor of the horrible crash would leave the hospital in two weeks. He noted that the patient would need additional skin grafting and medical treatment. Maxie spent more than a month in the hospital before his release during the second week of September 1954. He immediately left Letcher County. 

The Lexington Herald front page from August 4, 1954.

The news media looked for Maxie each year around the anniversary of the accident. They hoped to follow up on his condition and life since the accident. George W. Hackett, a reporter for the Associated Press, found him in Newport, Kentucky in 1961 and convinced him to talk. 

Maxie told Hackett that he left Letcher County in search of peace with the intention of never going back. He found work in the restaurant business after leaving the mines. In a brief interview, Maxie said that he had searched for peace but had not and likely would not find it. “I still can’t sleep some nights thinking about it,” he told Hackett. Maxie recalled the excitement of the ride in Brown’s new car since Maxie did not drive or have a license. “Our wives wanted to see the coal mine where both of us worked, so we decided to make the trip the next day. We wanted it to be a holiday.” Maxie explained.

Hexie Maxie went home to Whitesburg in late July 1961 to visit family, but the trip by the turn to Pine Mountain was too much. He spent one night and returned to Newport and his restaurant job. He told Hackett that it would “be a long time before I return.” Hackett reported that he walked most places and would only occasionally ride in a car and then only for only short distances. He never tried to learn to drive, saying, “I don’t want the responsibility.”

It appears he never gave another interview. Hexie Maxie continued to live quietly in northern Kentucky until he died on August 8, 1982, in Campbell County at 63. It had been more than 28 years since the fiery wreck claimed his family. He came home to Letcher County one last time. Relatives buried him beside his wife and children with the Browns in the Shea’s Fork Cemetery (now known as the McRoberts Cemetery).   

Twenty-seven people were killed on Kentucky roadways that tragic weekend in 1954. 

A silent row of uncarved field stones in the McRoberts Cemetery at Shea’s Fork marks the final resting place of the victims of America’s deadliest single-vehicle accident.

No monuments have been erected to remember America’s deadliest single-vehicle accident. The victims are not marked. Simple, unadorned stones identify the locations of the graves. Their names are not recorded on tombstones or markers to recall the tragic events that claimed eleven lives in 1954 and a twelfth victim in 1982. 

Like so much in history, their time and places on this Earth are nearly forgotten.

In Memory Of

Hexie Maxie 1914 - 1982
Elsie (Collins) Maxie 1923 - 1954
Betty Sue Maxie 1950 - 1954
Ellis Ray Maxie 1951 - 1954
Louise Maxie 1953 - 1954

Tom Brown 1910 - 1954
Lula (Maxie) Brown 1916 - 1954
Christine Brown 1943 - 1954
Shirley Jean Brown 1947 - 1954
Hayden Brown 1950 - 1954
Geraldine Brown 1952 - 1954

Martha Gibson 1937 - 1954

© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling


About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
This entry was posted in Tragedy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to America’s Deadliest Single-Vehicle Crash

  1. Glenita Fenwick says:

    This was just so sad..


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