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Graduates, drivers ‘dodged a bullet’ in crash

It was a miracle that no one was killed in last week's 38-vehicle pile up on Interstate 64 in Nitro, but a second, smaller miracle occurred when a van load of students and parents showed up at graduation only a little late with help from paramedics.

Police, firefighters and paramedics showed up not knowing what to expect Thursday evening on the Nitro-St. Albans Interstate Bridge.

Brian Oxley, Nitro police chief, said Metro Communications first told responders there were 10 to 12 vehicles involved but that number grew to 20 to 25 vehicles and then 30-plus.

The final count would be 38 vehicles with 22 injured, though only nine would go to area hospitals. Officers have not yet determined the cause of the crash.

"We really dodged a bullet on this one," said Mike Jarrett, chaplain and spokesman for the Kanawha County Emergency Ambulance Authority.

The ambulance authority sent paramedics and ambulances and also passenger vans, as they do in mass casualty situations, Jarrett said. The vans were for the walking wounded they expected to find at the scene.

But those walking wounded, which numbered 10 or more, weren't at the scene when the vans arrived. They already had been taken to a nearby park and ride by a KRT bus. The paramedic supervisor was about to send all the vans back when Jarrett asked for one.

"You just heard all these people saying 'We're on the way to graduation,' 'How are we going to get to graduation,' 'Now we'll never make it,' " Jarrett said. "I thought maybe this is something we could do to help."

About a dozen seniors from Winfield High School were on the road either stuck in the crash or just behind it. Their graduation was being held that night at the Municipal Auditorium in Charleston and they were in danger of missing it if they couldn't find a way to get there.

"I thought 'I'm going to take these people and drop them off at the Municipal Auditorium,' " Jarrett said.

Jarrett, a Winfield High alum, said there was a van and an open lane to get students out of there. He asked the supervisor at the scene if the van could be used to take the students and others to the auditorium.

The chaplain had baby wipes, washcloths and water for the group if they needed it. He said he never carries that many provisions in his vehicle but had them stocked up for the Special Olympics Summer Games, which were set to kick off the Friday after the crash.

The supervisor gave the go-ahead and a group of 12 students and parents piled into the van along with a trained crisis counselor in case she was needed. Other graduates and their parents would follow soon after.

The chaplain called the fact that no one was killed and that they were able to get the kids to graduation "God doing his showing off."

Meanwhile, at the Municipal Auditorium, senior classmen were worried about their friends and classmates stuck in the wreck. The students, who already were lined up when they learned of the crash, asked Principal Bruce McGrew to hold the ceremony until their classmates could get there.

McGrew said Thursday night that it wasn't an easy decision to make, as his primary concern was for the safety of his students and their families. But by the time he made the decision to delay the ceremony the van already was headed to Charleston.

"It was like clockwork," he said standing on the stage that night, watching the students greet their families in the din of excitement. "Everything worked out perfectly."

Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at or 304-348-4850.


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