Freddie Anderson's memory of that Thursday morning nearly 50 years ago is fresh. Anderson was dropping off her youngest child at her mother-in-law's when the car came roaring down the highway toward her. The man inside shouted. "Mrs. L had a wreck with the school bus, and your little girl is dead," he said.
Anderson didn't believe him. She thought it was some sort of cruel joke.
"For real, Freddie," he said again.
Anderson rushed to the site of the bus crash, but authorities wouldn't let her through. She hurried to the hospital. And waited. And waited.
Finally, she learned the awful truth.
A school bus filled with Moton School students had collided with a rock truck. Four were dead.
The crash took the life of the bus driver, Lillian Hicks; Hicks' 7-year-old son, Basil; and both of Anderson's children — Randy, 9, and Kim, 7.
"I was expecting Randy to be fine," Anderson remembered. "Nobody ever said anything about Randy."
The crash was devastating to many Hernando County residents, especially in the predominantly black community around Twin Lakes, near Spring Lake, and those attending Moton, the county's school for black children, where the bus was headed.
But as the 47th anniversary is marked, precious little has been written about it. The details and memories are fading.
This morning, survivors of the crash and members of the community will come together for the first time to pay homage. To remember. To be healed.
"Sometimes we go looking for history far and wide," said Imani Asukile, who is organizing the memorial service. "But we don't go looking for our own."
• • •
Most people in Hernando have never heard about the events of Feb. 3, 1966.
The crash happened at 8:05 a.m.
A school bus filled with nearly 50 children was traveling north on Spring Lake Highway from the citrus-farming community of Twin Lakes, near the Hernando-Pasco county line.
The bus was supposed to turn left at State Road 50, which then was only two lanes and just had a stop sign.
But something went wrong.
The bus didn't stop at the intersection and didn't appear to slow down, according to witnesses quoted in the St. Petersburg Times at the time.
The bus swerved right and then crashed, eventually flipping onto its roof. It sounded like a dynamite explosion.
Students were thrown to the front of the bus and over to one side. Seat cushions were ripped free from their metal frames. The truck, which carried roughly 60 tons of crushed rock, came to a rest on its side about 250 feet east of the intersection. Its driver was treated for minor injuries.
• • •
Roberta Spencer Smith, then 8 years old, remembers sitting next to Kim Anderson the day of the crash.
Smith said it was the day after they had come back from the Florida State Fair in Tampa. Everyone was excited.
"Everybody was laughing and everything," the 55-year-old Smith said. "I still remember things so vividly."
She remembers they were riding in an older replacement bus, not the one they were normally in.
They were all having fun when they just "tumbled and tumbled and tumbled."
"It was tragic," she said.
Smith remembers crawling over people and seats in the upside-down bus. Someone kicking out a window. The screaming. The noise.
She saw people lying on the grass and in the road.
Relatives were injured. Blood covered faces.
Pastor Delois Taylor, who was on the bus at the time, also remembers the screaming and hollering. With seats everywhere, she crawled out a window.
"Blood was running off the bus like it was water," Taylor said.
Smith said she and another little boy ran away.
They ran — down SR 50 — toward Moton until a teacher caught up with her and picked her up. Then she went to the school, where she and others broke the news of the crash.
• • •
Nobody seems to agree on the cause of the wreck.
Some say the bus had faulty brakes. Others say the bus driver, Mrs. Hicks, was known to speed and lost control. Others say she had been drinking.
Initial reports after the crash said the brakes appeared functional, said Asukile.
He's not sure anyone knows the exact cause.
The Florida Highway Patrol, which conducted an investigation at the time, doesn't keep records dating back to 1966.
The last year of its records?
Anderson, 72, who lives in Georgia and whose name is now Anderson-Wilkinson, said even after all these years, people still have trouble dealing with the tragedy.
That's part of the reason for today's memorial service.
Taylor, the pastor, said nobody has ever done anything since the wreck.
"There needs to be closure," she said.
• • •
Randy and Kim's mom said she keeps their last school photos on her cell phone.
She looks at them every day. She prays, questions why they had to leave so soon. Why they couldn't have stayed longer.
"Time heals all things," she said. "I don't think so."
"I just wonder. I wonder more and more … how my life may have been."
Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. Tweet him @HernandoTimes.