HOPE VALLEY – It was a little over 85 years ago that 26 passengers shook off the frigid Rhode Island weather and boarded a warm bus heading for Boston. It was Feb. 25, 1929 and the time on the clock that morning read 20 minutes past eleven.
After riding for a few minutes, the warmth went from comforting to stifling and a couple of the passengers asked the driver, 28-year-old Daniel Gass of Massachusetts, to turn down the heat a bit. No one had the slightest idea that soon, they would all be trapped inside an inferno.
As the bus made its way past the Brayman farm in Hope Valley, screams suddenly filled the vehicle. An elderly woman seated directly behind the bus driver had accidentally dropped her newspaper. As it landed upon one of the searing heating pipes which ran beneath the wooden floor of the bus, flames shot up violently. In mere seconds, a river of fire flooded the interior, causing instant hysteria.
Gass pulled the bus over as several passengers were being trampled by the mad dash of others to save their own lives. Some raced toward the door as the flames literally melted their skin away. Others punched or kicked out windows while the blaze fed on their clothing. Screams of desperation echoed in horror while one passenger after another pushed their way out of the burning bus.
Each was transported to the Westerly Hospital to receive emergency medical attention. Some were severely injured. Mary Slack, 62, of Massachusetts suffered serious injuries as did 66-year-old Allen Willougby of New Hampshire and 11-year-old Mildred Reid of New Jersey. Mildred’s father Edward was also in serious condition.
Thomas Dolling, a 24-year-old passenger from England suffered burns to the face and body. Edward Turnbull and Dorothy Mitchell, both of Massachusetts were also badly scorched. The list of those injured went on to include Frank Laferrara of New Jersey, 37-year-old Edward Donovan of New York and 74-year-old Jack Goodman of Massachusetts. In all, eight men and five women were hospitalized with burns and other injuries. Sisters Mary and Carolyn Slack of Massachusetts soon died of their wounds.
But one man who had boarded the bus that chilly February morning never saw the flames. He didn’t witness nor take part in the mad rush for the door. Gass recalled seeing the man still seated in the front part of the bus as the fire consumed the last untouched corners.
Levi Hopkins was about 60 years old. A virtual pauper who was supported by assistance from the philanthropists of the Town Criers of Rhode Island, he made a very meager living by selling calendars and other paper novelties.
Hopkins was a resident of the Faith Home for the Blind in East Providence. Totally void of vision, he had made his way up the steps of the bus that morning with high hopes. His plans for the day were to meet up with some friends to discuss a printing business he wanted to start. He had no knowledge of what was happening in that bus as it made its way past the Brayman farm. He heard the screams ricocheting off the walls that surrounded him, the shattering glass and tortured cries, unknowing of what was occurring. And he sat there and listened in a world of darkness before the fire leapt upon him and claimed his life.
Levi Hopkins’ charred bones were later discovered in the wreckage and were deposited into a grave at Spring Vale Cemetery.
An investigation into the fire revealed some shocking information. Although Gass was not suspected of any criminal negligence, he was not even supposed to be driving a bus. His license had been suspended several years prior after a second charge of drunk driving.
The bus company not only decided to overlook this fact, they soon promoted Gass to director of service in gratitude for his “heroism” in staying calm and in control during the tragedy. He went on to win two awards for safe driving in later years.
Headlines of the time kept the public up to date on all the details regarding Gass’ legal proceedings. However, Levi Hopkins, often referred to in print simply as “the blind man,” faded from the minds of all concerned. From a dark existence to a dark grave he passed, seated quietly, his hand ungrasped in the chaos.
Kelly Sullivan is a freelance history and features writer for Southern Rhode Island Newspapers.