The evening of September 12, 1969 was football night at Alleghany High School. I had gone to a Baptist Association meeting at Laurel Fork Baptist Church at the foot of Jane Taylor Mountain with my parents, Walter Presley and Carolyn Maxwell Johnson. My father was the director of the US Savings Bond Program in NC at that time. I was taking a shower about 10:30 pm when we got the call; John Walter Johnson, my 17 year old brother who had gone to the football game with his date, Linda Shirlean Pennington, from Galax, Virginia, had a single car accident in Sparks curve about 3 miles north of Sparta on Highway 18. The captain of the football team, Drew Choate and his date Joan Kennedy were in a car in front of Johnny, when Johnny’s car took a sudden right off the road hitting a locust tree on the driver’s side leaving the car pointed in the direction from which it had come.
The two young people were trapped. Johnny was sitting upright still fastened by his seatbelt. The tree had imprinted its shape into the driver’s door about 12-18 inches. Linda Pennington was not wearing her seat belt, and was lying down on her right side with her feet and legs against Johnny and her head against the passenger door. Both young people were unconscious. Many folks stopped to help eventually reaching 100-200 people. All wanted to help, but special tools were needed and there was no rescue squad in Alleghany County.
The car was a four door hard top Pontiac, and the windows were broken out. My Dad, Walter Presley got onto the hood of the car so he could reach John Walter, who was periodically moving and groaning with his injuries. My Dad would hold Johnny when he was groaning and moving and tell him he would be all right. Then his movements would be still for awhile. Thinking the restriction of his seat belt was hurting Johnny, I reached in and cut the belt with my pocketknife – a mistake in retrospect. My mother had taken refuge in Leff Hincher’s pick-up truck. I heard later that she would pray awhile then cry awhile, while the crowd struggled to free the two young people. Thinking the two were in shock or going into shock, I called two of our local physicians hoping they might come and administer vasoconstrictors to counter shock. Unfortunately, they could not come as this was in the days before good Samaritan laws. At that time the emergency room at Alleghany Memorial was not operational even though the hospital still admitted patients, and Alleghany County did not have a rescue squad.
As the frustration of entrapment continued, several rescue squads in neighboring counties were called to assist. The hardtop of the car was removed by cutting the front posts and winching the top back to gain entrance. Rescue squads from Elkin, NC, Galax, VA, and Independence, VA were eventually called to help extract the pair. A Virginia state trooper named C.D. Pennington from Galax, VA heard the commotion on the radio and responded by coming to help not knowing his daughter was in the crash. They were removed about 12:30 am on Saturday the 13th. Johnny was extracted first, and placed into an ambulance with me and a nurse, Peggy Hayslett, to take to Galax Hospital. I was so relieved to get Johnny out of the car that Peggy’s suggestion to do CPR brought me back to reality. I did mouth to mouth resuscitation while Peggy did chest compressions. Johnny tasted like he was full of blood.
When we got to Galax Hospital, the emergency room became alive with activity. I remember the emergency room doctor asking for an intracardiac needle for epinephrine. After several minutes of searching one was found but the injection was unsuccessful. Johnny was dead.
When the doctor went to tell my parents, my Dad tried to control the conversation by saying, “Doctor, it doesn’t matter whether Johnny’s looks are damaged or if he is disabled, just tell me he will live.” The doctor said, “I am sorry but we could not save him.” I went into the hall. Johnny was lying on a gurney with a sheet over his face. It was not long enough to cover his blonde hair. Johnny had been 6’3” with a slow grin freely given. Johnny was a member of First Baptist Church in Sparta and a senior at Alleghany County High School. He had been looking at applications for college the next year.
Linda Pennington shortly afterward arrived in another ambulance at the Galax Hospital, but unfortunately, she too was unable to be saved. She was the daughter of Mrs. Oakie Pennington, a nurse at Waddell Hospital where her daughter died. Linda was a student in the Licensed Practical Nurse Program at Waddell Hospital. Two weeks earlier she had told her mother she thought she would be killed in a car wreck.
Following this tragedy, the community of Alleghany had several meetings to organize an Alleghany County Rescue Squad. Some of the organizational meetings were held at the VFW building. All were well attended by both men and women. It was decided to allow both men and women to be members of the new rescue squad and to approach the Elkin Rescue Squad for organization assistance. Roy Kane was a member of the Elkin Rescue Squad and made many trips to Sparta to help Alleghany form its own squad with equipment that could open car wrecks that had been folded around their victims.
Local leadership of the effort to organize a new squad was led by Brown McKinney, the Sparta Methodist pastor, Melvin Miles, an Alleghany High School teacher, Roscoe Evan, a local businessman, Brice Miller, manager of WCOK radio station, as well as Walter and Terry Johnson.
Saturday, 11/15/1969, was set as a day of remembrance for Johnny Johnson to initiate the donations drive for the Alleghany County Rescue Squad. There was to be a personal canvas of every home and business in Alleghany County by many volunteers who had attended the organization meetings in order to raise necessary funds.
By this time the Alleghany County Rescue Squad had been formally organized and incorporated. Claude Edwards was elected Captain of the squad. Dr. Jack Ashley volunteered to be medical advisor, two nurses were active members: Mrs. Carol Taylor and Mrs. Eva Wooten. Twenty-seven members of the squad had completed standard and advanced first aid courses taught by Arthur Hutchens of the Elkin Rescue Squad, who was a licensed American Red Cross Instructor. Nine classes had been taught with each lasting three hours, and more courses were to be taught in 1970.
Equipment needed was: four wheel drive panel truck with all purpose first aid kit, which was purchased from Irwin Chevrolet Oldsmobile at their cost, resuscitator, jaws of life to remove trapped victims, pull motors, oxygen equipment, generator, flood lights, grapple hooks and other specialized equipment and small tools. The estimated cost of truck and supplies was over $8,000 with $2,000 pledged by 11/15/69. Alleghany High School had pledged $500. All those who contributed were to be given a complimentary copy of General McArthur’s poem, “A Fathers Prayer: Build me a Son.”
To my knowledge, this was the first thorough county-wide fund drive, which included approximately 70 different churches. The great number of volunteers raised many generous donations with some coming from outside of Alleghany County and raised over $8,000. The combined effort of the Alleghany community resulted in the formation and continued growth of the Alleghany County Rescue Squad composed of compassionate, unpaid, trained volunteers whose mission is to save the lives of those suffering whatever crisis.
On September 12, 1969 a young teenage couple were involved in a tragic automobile accident on NC Highway 18 just outside of Sparta, NC. They had become entrapped in the vehicle and were in need of rescue and advanced medical care. Unfortunately, there were no emergency medical services or specialized rescue services in existence in Alleghany County at that time. Due to this fact, the couple were trapped for almost 2 1/2 hours before being extricated and taken to the hospital, where they lost their lives. This horrible tragedy would in turn lead to the formation of the Alleghany County Rescue Squad.
From the beginning, Alleghany County Rescue Squad was a community effort. Upon seeing a need for trained rescue and emergency medical services, many citizens of Alleghany took the initiative to start the squad. Mr. Melvin Miles took to the radio and newspapers to bring attention to this need, and multiple citizens of the county responded as willing volunteers. The first meeting was held less than two weeks after the tragic accident on September 23, 1969.
Quickly, the organization took shape. By October 1969, officers were elected and there were 43 members. Training sessions in first aid were started in October and completed by November. Rescue training started in February of 1970. Fund raising efforts included an auction at WCOK radio station, a house-to-house canvas, a letter drive to churches and many donations from citizens. By March, the squad had raised enough money to get a rescue truck - a Chevrolet Suburban that would come to be known as "301".
Initially, the rescue squad did not have their own base from which to work. The members gathered at Alleghany Farm Equipment, where their equipment was stored. The only method of communication was phone lines installed in the home of Roscoe Evans and at Alleghany Farm Equipment. The phone line was moved as needed with elections, and dispatch of calls was handled this way. A CB radio was donated in 1971 and a CB radio tower installed at Alleghany Farm Equipment.
In March 1972, the squad discovered what would become their most popular fundraiser and a long-standing tradition when they held their very first monthly chicken BBQ. In 1973, the squad, with the help of the county commissioners, initiated establishment of the county's first emergency radio communications on Green Mountain. By 1974, the squad was using radio communications and had moved into the Sparta Fire Department's old building. The squad's first building of their own was built in 1975 on Cox Street. This building was later to be shared with the newly established paid ambulance service, Alleghany County EMS - in 1977. The squad moved into their current building on Trojan Avenue in 1987.
Today, the Alleghany County Rescue Squad strives to meet the needs of our county through emergency services including technical rescue, advanced life support first response, back-up for Alleghany County EMS, public education efforts, and community outreach. We are ever-evolving with changes in technology, equipment, rescue techniques, medical advances, communications, regulations, and public needs. By remembering our past and the reasons for our formation, we can continue to prepare for our future.