What was the worst traffic accident in Wake County's history? It's the type of morbidly curious question asked about in the day rooms of fire stations or rescue squads. Or discussed between generations of responders: paramedics, EMTs, firefighters, law officers, and dispatchers. What were the worst ones? Who remembers the big ones? And, of course, what happened?
In the annals of Wake County's emergency services history, the worst car crash was probably the seven fatalities and five injuries that occurred on a narrow dirt road in eastern Wake County on the night of December 29, 1976. The ages of the victims ranged from fourteen to twenty-one. They resided in Clayton, Knightdale, Garner, and Raleigh.
Two Cars Collide
The head-on collision happened on Bissette Road (SR2508), about a mile southeast of the Shotwell community, and near the Johnston County line. Two cars on the crest of a hill about 8:30 p.m.
Six people were riding in a 1971 Oldsmobile driven by William Harold Wheeler, a 16-year-old high school student from Clayton. The vehicle was traveling an estimated 60 to 70 miles per hour, and on the wrong side of the road, when it crashed into a 1973 Chevrolet traveling 25 to 35 miles per hour. The second vehicle was occupied five times.
The Chevrolet was pushed backwards 36 feet down the hill, State Troopers later determined, before coming to rest in a ditch. The car was crushed on the driver's side. The Oldsmobile continued eastward down the hill for 51 feet, before turning over several times, and landing upside down. The car was flattened.
Four passengers were thrown clear of the vehicles. The remaining eight occupants were pinned inside the two vehicles.
One of the surviving passengers in the Oldsmobile recalled there was little warning of the "impending wreck." Recounted Charles Randy Gurley in the Raleigh Times, "We were going along, and all of a sudden everyone said to watch out." He said in a telephone interview, "The next thing I remember, I was crawling out from under a car."
Dispatching The Call
The accident was reported by a female motorist, who passed the scene a few minute later. At the Wendell Police Station, police dispatcher and rescue squad member Roger Lane took the phone call on the emergency line (365-4444).
He remembers the caller saying "someone has come to the house and said they were in a wreck." When asked if anyone was hurt, they said "I'm not sure, but the person that walked to my house seems dazed and confused."
Lane dispatched the standard resources for a motor-vehicle accident: one ambulance (the squad had three) and the crash truck. The latter carried the squad's hydraulic Hurst tool, which they'd acquired two years earlier.
The driving distance from the two-year-old Wendell Rescue Squad building to the accident scene was about six miles. The location was about equal distance between the towns of Wendell and Knightdale. (A rescue squad in Knightdale was organized the following year. One of the founders, Bob Couick from Wendell Rescue Squad, would respond this night.)
Squad Captain Norman Dean was the first to arrive. He recalled being dispatched to a "simple" car accident "with personal injury." He found one young man walking, with a wound to his face. He found another victim who was deceased, and that's when he "radioed for all the help I could get."
Lane remembers receiving the "scary details" from Dean over the radio. He jumped up from his chair and re-dispatched the call, requesting all available Wendell rescue units. He radioed for Zebulon to send all of their ambulances. He called the Knightdale Fire Department. And he called "RESCOM" to send two wreckers as an "emergency request."
Six "rescue trucks" and a "nearly a score" of rescue workers arrived from Wendell, Knightdale, and Zebulon, reported the News & Observer and Raleigh Times. (Did Clayton or Garner send any ambulances?) Two fire engines were also called to the scene, as well an "auxiliary truck." Some of the victims were conscious. Those trapped in the vehicles were removed with "the aid of power tools."
Three young women, and one young man were pronounced dead at the scene. Another young woman died in the Wake Medical Center emergency room shortly before midnight. Two more, one young man and a young woman, died the following day.
Those with non-fatal injuries were admitted to Wake Medical Center in varying conditions: critical (1), serious (1), good (1), and fair (1). Plus one who was treated and released.
Squad member Bob Couick lived in Knightdale, and responded to the scene in his personal vehicle. He remembers riding the first ambulance that left the scene, a Wendell unit with himself and Herb Ramsey in the back.
They transported a female patient to Wake Medical Center, where she passed away. Couick stayed at the emergency room for several hours, helping out, before returning to the scene to get his car.
Dean told the Raleigh Times that both drivers were pinned behind the steering wheels. Both drivers died.
Several troopers investigated the incident well into the evening. Two Federal Highway Administration officials arrived at the scene the day after. They were asked to investigate any accident with more than five fatalities.
The next morning, those who lived nearby were "surveying the scene." Curious area residents, reported the newspapers.
Both the Raleigh Times and News & Observer ran front-page stories about the accident, as well as subsequent stories about the students, the party that some had attended, and their funerals.
Wheeler and his four passengers were honors students at Clayton High School. He had received his driver's license only two days before. They had left a holiday party to take a ride.
The Highway Patrol said no charges would be filed, but their report would note the driver of the Oldsmobile was speeding and traveling on the wrong side of road.
On December 31, 1976, a mass funeral for the five youths killed from Clayton was held at First Baptist Church in Clayton. Close to 1,000 people attended.
The accident also brought back memories to many Clayton residents who remembered four teenagers from town who were killed in a car accident on January 3, 1941. Their car was struck by a train in Benson, as they were traveling to a Clayton-Benson basketball game.
Recounts longtime Johnston County emergency services member Jason Thompson, "For many years, those student's photos were hanging in the library at Clayton High School." He also notes that his grandfather lost a coin toss that morning, and didn't get a ride in that car and his life was spared.
That accident also ended interscholastic basketball at the high school for several years.
Other multiple fatality incidents in Wake County's history have included:
Not sure of the date, but it was in the early 80s- RDU was still in the original fire station. Two vehicle MVC at Airport Rd intersection and US70. Family station wagon leaving RDU pulled out in front of another vehicle. Several fatalities and debris all over the intersection.
DJ - 03/18/14 - 22:39
That would be it. I remember it being a Friday night with an elderly driver. Durham Highway FD also went.
DJ - 03/19/14 - 17:29
I know the one at Nowell Rd & Chapel Hill Rd in Raleigh was a bad one. I was on Cary Engine 2 that night and responded with Rescue 2 and Western Wake and numerous EMS agencies. Several fatalities and other injuries, caused by a drunk driver plowing through a earlier accident scene. Mike I believe it was in 2003 or so?
car3550 - 03/20/14 - 19:34
November 1, 2003 – Six killed in MVA at Chapel Hill Road and Nowell Road in Raleigh.
As listed above, at the bottom of my essay.
I was also there that night, arriving around the time of the first fire unit(s). Was in the area, went to the scene expecting a “regular” motor-vehicle accident. Was quite harrowing, though I don’t readily recall specifics of the experience. Can’t remember what I did with my photos, beyond giving a copy to Western Wake. Might’ve submitted a FireNews.net story.
Legeros - 03/20/14 - 19:39
November 1st, 2003 is a night I will never forget as long as I live. The images I saw still haunt me. Driving through that intersection just today still brought back memories. Strong work that night by each and every member that responded on each and every piece of equipment.
shevais - 03/20/14 - 23:59