FLAT ROCK — Wednesday marked the 60th anniversary of an event which ended two lives, changed multiple lives and shook the Flat Rock community.
Four survivors of the 1957 Flat Rock School fire shared their stories of perseverance with students at Flat Rock Elementary School.
Marsha Simones, who is now Marsha Lowe, Frank Hensley, Bobby Burkhart and Tamela Hiatt Midkiff had their lives changed forever on Feb. 22, 1957, when the school erupted in flames.
Lowe explained they are four of what became known as the Flat Rock Six — the six survivors of the fire who were most badly injured. Benny Goodman, another of the six, was unable to attend Wednesday’s program and the sixth of the group, John Haynes Jr., died almost five years ago.
Of course, Hensley mentioned there were also two people who saw their lives end as a result of the day’s events. Hensley told students third-grade student Larry Adams panicked and clutched his desk that day. He died in the flames, and his teacher, Cora Beasley, died days later as a result of the injuries she sustained while attempting to rescue Larry.
Pictures of Adams and Beasley hang at Flat Rock to commemorate the lives and the loss of the two.
There was also another survivor that day, Lowe told students. A pine tree at the school was partially burned, and yet it continues to stand at the school. The “survivor tree” is symbolic of those victims who triumphed over the day’s tragic events.
Lowe told students her story. Her math class was interrupted by the fire, and she made a decision to take five seconds to retrieve her piano book from her desk. She had a lesson that evening. The five seconds nearly cost her life.
Lowe said she was trampled in the hallway as she felt her way down the steps. She lay unconscious at the bottom of them before exiting the school. She was rushed to a local doctor’s office, and then transported in the back of a station wagon to Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem.
The local doctor told the former army medic who rode with her that he didn’t think the young girl would make it. She spent about eight months at Baptist recovering from burns on nearly three-quarters of her body.
Her scars are evident, and she told students her fingers don’t look like everybody else’s and don’t work like everybody else’s.
That didn’t stop her from doing what she wanted in life, however. She had to plead in high school for the typing teacher to allow her into his class.
“I got a B,” said Lowe.
She went on to have a career in office work, and she told students her path was an example of how one can persevere in the face of a challenge. Though the fire changed her life forever, she didn’t let it get in the way of her ambitions.
“We did not let our lives stop with tragedy,” she told the students. “Sixty years later we continue to triumph over that tragedy.”
The group has written a book called Tragedy to Triumph, and Midkiff illustrated the cover.
She explained the meaning behind her illustrations. Coats were included in the drawings because she said many students made a decision to retrieve their coats prior to exiting.
Many folks didn’t have a lot of money, said Midkiff, and kids were often told “not to come home without your coat.” That decision led many students to be badly injured. People falling from the second story of the building were also pictured.
Midkiff said she remembered the horror of watching students thrown from the windows and teachers jumping.
“The high school students were some of our angels that day,” said Midkiff, explaining the older students were on the ground attempting to catch the falling students and teachers.
Like Lowe, Midkiff said the tragedy changed her life but didn’t alter her course to success.
“The only thing that stops you is you deciding you don’t want to do something,” Midkiff told the students. “If something is hard, and you want to overcome it, keep working.”
Hensley was one of those students who went to get his coat. The result was an eight-month stay at the hospital for him as well.
He showed the students pictures from the fire while telling his story.
The retired preacher told the students, “Life has been good to us,” explaining each one of the six went on to have a career, marry and have children.
“We thought we’d have to marry each other,” joked Hensley, explaining he and the others thought it might be hard to find a significant other with the scars from the fire so easily visible.
Hensley also said Wednesday’s program wasn’t meant to scare students. He reminded them to follow directions in case of an emergency, but he also said the 1957 tragedy brought much change in North Carolina. Within three months of the fire, laws had been enacted requiring fire alarms in schools, adequate means of egress and fire drills. School buildings are now constructed with brick and concrete instead of the much more flammable wood used in constructing the Flat Rock School which burned to the ground in 20 minutes.
Lowe also noted the Four Way Volunteer Fire Department was started as a result of the blaze. It was the first to be established in Surry County and sits right next to the school.
Hensley said the history which led to those changes lies at Flat Rock School, and students should understand the history.
He also said he needed to thank the community in Flat Rock.
“We could have experienced ridicule,” said Hensley. “We knew we weren’t heroes, but we were treated as heroes.”
“I need to thank the entire community for being to us what we needed at that time.”
Flat Rock’s principal, Dana Draughn, said Wednesday’s program was prefaced by lessons about the fire in the classroom.
She said every year the anniversary rolls around, but some students and members of the community know nothing of the tragedy.
“We want our students to understand who they are and what it means to be a Flat Rock Dragon,” explained Draughn. “We want them to know the history behind their school.”
She also noted the stories of the Flat Rock Six can teach students a bigger lesson.
“Their positive attitude and perseverance is exactly the sort of thing we want to instill in our students,” said Draughn.
Andy is a staff writer and may be reached at 415-4698.