IVANHOE —Vernell Carr remembers the rain that fell 50 years ago during the week leading up to a fateful March 30, 1964 Easter morning when her world — and the world of so many she knew — changed forever. And she vividly recalls the sounds of voices stirring her from her sleep, men talking in hushed tones, her mother’s sobs and the eventual hysterical strains of reality crashing into her teenage world.
On that fateful morning so long ago, Carr and other members of the Ivanhoe community were awakened to news that five local men had plummeted into a watery grave after the pickup they were in struck a bridge that crossed Black River, just a short distance from the small Sampson community.
One of them was Carr’s father, Howard Hayes. Another, the lone survivor of the accident, Willie Ray Carr, would eventually become her husband.
“We were all so young back then, but the memories, the pain, oh they’re still just as real today as they were back then,” the now 66-year-old recalled during an interview last week, just days before a memorial ceremony was held at that same bridge, with family and friends gathered to pay tribute one more time.
They’ve done so four times now since that fateful night in 1964, a way to remember the five men — Robert Junior Carr, 27; Andrew Levi Carr, 24, Howard Hayes, 38, Tony Waydell Corbett, 27, and Lonnie Ray Burney, 16 — who lost their lives in the deep, murky waters. A wreath marks the area where the bridge was struck and a memorial bearing the names of all those who died rests close by, just a short distance from where the truck made its upside down dive into the water.
Willie Carr started the memorial some years back, his wife acknowledged, saying that it was her now late husband’s way of reminding folks of those men and of the tragedy that impacted an entire community.
“He wanted to keep their memories alive,” Vernell Carr asserted. “Willie never really got over that accident, and he was always eager to do anything that would allow him and others to pay respect to them.”
Although Willie Carr died in 2011, his wife said it was decided among the various families that the memorial needed to go on. “We decided to continue it because that’s what Willie would have wanted. It’s been 10 years since we had the last one … it’s a way to remember them and it’s a way to get us all together to relive the good times, too.”
Vernell Carr has since moved to Wilmington, but she continues to make the trek back to the southern Sampson community for the memorials, along with other family members and friends of those lost.
She returned two days ago, despite the rains that came again, much like they did 50 years ago on that other early Easter morning when those six Ivanhoe men set out for home in the cab of a 1963 Chevy pulpwood truck.
Joined by some 40 others, they gathered on the bridge, umbrellas raised, hearts full, as they paid their respects again, bonded by loving memories and pain, though dulled, that Carr said would forever connect them.
“Each morning, when I look in the mirror, I see him in me more and more,” said Myra Hayes-Walker, another of Hayes’ daughters.
And, recalling how fleeting their lives were, the Rev. Alvester Carr, brother to Robert Carr, urged all those gathered not to take life for granted. “Live life to the fullest,” he admonished, “but do it safely. There is nothing like a mother’s cry when something happens to her children.”
It was her own mother’s cry that Vernell Carr recalled as she was being interviewed last week. “You don’t really get over the pain you see in your mama’s eyes,” she attested.
She recalls being awakened around 4 a.m. that Easter morning to the sounds of her mother’s sobs and the talk about the truck going into the river.
“My father was taking them all home. It was about 3 a.m. and they were all in the cab of that truck. Willie was riding in his brother’s lap. All except Tony Corbett lived near Snow Hill Church.”
“I heard them tell my mama that the truck went in the river and it was still there. We all knew it wasn’t good.”
What is now Dr. Kerr Road was just a dirt loop road back in the 1960s, Carr said, and her husband often told of a large hole in the middle of that road near the entrance to the bridge.
According to an interview with Willie Carr in a 2004 Sampson Independent article, Hayes swerved to miss that hole, and the truck struck the wooden guard rail on the south side, breaking it, and then plunged into the waters below, upside down.
Willie Carr later recalled that he was thrown into the truck’s windshield and eventually tumbled out into the water, believed to be between 8 and 10 feet deep where the vehicle was submerged.
“Willie wasn’t exactly sure what happened; he was in shock, but he later told me he thought the door opened and he managed to get out. He could swim and he bobbed up and down until he got to the bank. He said he ran and ran and ran, thinking everyone else was behind him. He ran so hard and so fast that he went right by his house.”
His brother, Vernell Carr, said, saw Willie running and heard him hollering at the top of his lungs, and set out to catch up with him.
“He eventually caught him, saw he was soaking wet and that’s when everyone took off. They knew something bad had happened.”
Hours later Vernell Carr and her family, along with “just about everybody else from the community” arrived at the bridge where a wrecker crew was pulling the truck from the river. Although she didn’t see the bodies inside, a 1964 Sampson Independent news article indicated that all five men were still inside the truck when it was pulled from the water.
The men, the article noted, were entangled inside and covered in scratches and blood indicating their failed attempts to escape.
It was years later before Willie Carr talked about the incident to his wife.
“It was a long, long time before we talked about it,” Vernell Carr said. “It took us a long time to get over the worst of the hurt and shock, especially Willie.”
Willie Carr enlisted and went to Vietnam. When he came back he and Vernell “started up dating,” and some two years later, they married.
“He was still real messed up about it in many ways; between that and his time in Vietnam, Willie struggled,” she said.
Some 10 years after they were married, the two talked about the wreck, the hurt and the pain, both reliving every detail they could recall of that terrible night.
“It was hard to talk about. We both had lost so much, and reliving it hurt. But it also did us good to get it all out, share our pain.”
From those first days of talking about what happened came Willie’s idea for a memorial tribute, the first coming 20 years after the accident. “We put up the wreath at that time,” Carr said. “It was really important to Willie that this not be forgotten, that they not be forgotten. We all felt that way.”
Those same feelings emerged as strong as ever Sunday as the families reunited to share in a combined tragedy that they all hope has brought some good along the way.
“It’s more about the good memories now, fellowshipping together. It’s a way to keep a little part of them alive for us all. I don’t think we’ll stop doing this. Willie was right, it’s important.”