By RUTH MORGAN
Immediately before the disaster of the falling portico on Main Street on Jan. 10, 1947, a young man, presumably a college student, strode into one of the banks and with his hand in his pocket as if he had a gun there, walked up to one of the two ladies at the window and said, “Hand it over. This is a hold-up!” The young lady thinking that she did not hear him correctly asked him to repeat the statement and he did, making movements with his pocketed hand as if the revolver, which he supposedly held, was being restless. About that time a college student walked up to the would-be Dillinger and said, “Boy, what’s the matter with you? Where are you from?” and with that both boys slid out of sight. Then came the crash outside and the young lady teller tremblingly cried, “They’re bombing the bank!” There might have been another ending to this story. There might have been real resistance.
Starkville was struck with one of its most tragic accidents at 1:30 p.m. that same day when the two-story portico on the building located at 207 Main St. occupied by Magnolia Laundry and West’s Beauty Shop suddenly collapsed, crushing Evelyn Bullock to death and injuring two others.
Will R. Buckner, Oktibbeha County farmer from Oktoc Road, was caught in the falling debris and received serious injuries that crushed both legs, his lungs and bruised his entire body.
Annie Ruth Oakley, who still resides in Starkville, is the daughter of Will R. Buckner. It was from talking to her that I learned the details of the incident and Buckner's miraculous strength. She said, “Mr. Charles R. Beene was very instrumental in rescuing her father and wanted that to be known.” Her brother, W. R. Buckner, Jr. was on leave from the U. S. Navy and just happened to be at the Ice Cream Bar (201 Main St.) nearby and ran to help rescue his father from under the debris. The Buckner’s were in town shopping and Buckner told his wife to go over to the other side of the street at Giant Market (202 Main St.) and pick up the groceries they needed while he took care of other business on that side of the street. She witnessed the calamity and horror of her husband's injury first-hand.
Oakley’s uncle came from Birmingham to see his brother and said, “Something has to be done," so he called Dr. Sherrill in Birmingham and told him of her father’s condition.” Sherrill told him to get his brother to Birmingham as quickly as possible. Buckner was hospitalized from January to June.
Buckner had a wife and seven children to support. When he came home from the hospital in Birmingham, they did not know if he would ever walk or what his condition would be. The very first time he got of bed, his son and son-in-law helped him and Buckner said, “This is too hard and painful…put me back to bed.”
A few days later, he called for them and told them, “Get me up. I am going to walk," and he did. When he went back to Sherrill in Birmingham, Sherrill embraced him with great pride and admiration at his strength and perseverance and marveled at his achievement.
Buckner, though crippled for the rest of his life, continued the hard work of farming at the corner of Oktoc and Poorhouse Roads after recovery from the tragedy.
Annie Ruth Oakley also told me some things about Bullock, who had been killed in the tragedy. She said, "Mrs. Bullock had only been married a few months and her husband was in the military. He had been home on a visit and she had returned to town from taking him to catch his flight back and used a pay telephone to call her husband to make sure he had arrived safely. Within minutes, the falling portico killed her and then her husband had to be called back and told of her tragic death. Bullock’s mother was working at Staggers Bakery across the street and saw the portico fall on her daughter who was pregnant.
“Mrs. Annie Ruth,” as she is affectionately called was such an inspiration in sharing this highly emotional information with me. In fact, my heart burned within me as I listened intently to every word spoken so softly almost breaking with tears as she spoke. It is a story of such great sadness and the continuing strength and endurance of one of the victims, Will R. Buckner. Annie Ruth still remembers the ambulance, which transported her father, which has been embedded in her mind for 65 years. Oakley has three sons, Glenn, who runs the family farm, Sidney, an engineer in Florida and Lakin, a cattleman in Texas.
Eugene Shivers, a college student, was caught by the falling structure as he attempted to run from under the portico. He suffered cuts and bruises.
Without a warning of any kind the portico collapsed with a loud rumbling noise that was heard over the entire business district and as far away as the Methodist Church.
Several witnesses of the accident, who turned in time to see the victims caught under the falling wreckage, said that all tried to run from under the portico.
Businessmen, students and others went to work immediately and extricated Buckner and Eugene Shivers. However, Mrs. Bullock was under the bulk of the debris and it took some 15 to 20 minutes to remove her body.
George Cox of Magnolia Laundry was one of the first persons to reach the accident and crawled under the debris, knowing that someone had been caught by the falling portico, and found Bullock’s body completely covered with brick and timber with the exception of one arm. It was his belief that she died instantly.
No official report was made as to the cause of the portico collapse. Chief, W. W. Richey told The Associated Press, “It was an old building and possibly rain had soaked into the mortar of the bricks and then had frozen, causing the structure to be weakened. It looked like some of the bricks from the top of the building fell on the portico, causing it to come down on the sidewalk.”
Buckner was rushed to Long’s Clinic by ambulance and he received immediate treatment. Funeral services for Bullock, the former Evelyn Simpson, daughter of Mrs. Robert Neal, were held at the Methodist Church. Her burial was in the Friendship Cemetery in Columbus.
Bullock, wife of Rex Bullock, former Mississippi State student and athlete was in the Army at Ft. Bragg, N.C. and had attended school here. Pallbearers were Clyde Travis, Ben Ruscoe, Bobby Bryan, J. W. Ray, Joe Tom Mosley, John McCreight, Pete Sanders and Monroe Gideon, Jr.
Meanwhile, the Mayor and Board of Alderman discussed the possibility of establishing a building ordinance at their Tuesday night meeting. The board met that night in a special session and Mayor Imes said he planed to work out a method whereby all business establishments and public buildings would be subject to periodic inspection by competent safety engineers to be financed either by the city or fees levied on property owners.
"A Grateful Tribute," an editorial by Mayor Grady Imes was printed in the newspaper concerning the tragedy. It stated: "Monday afternoon we witnessed the greatest show of teamwork and coordination that has been manifest in this city in many years.
Immediately after the collapse of the portico, in which one life was lost and two were injured, the bystanders acting as a team with Herculean strength plunged into the work of clearing the wreckage in an endeavor to see if any other persons were buried under the debris.
Undoubtedly in war time and under military circumstances, these workers would have been cited for bravery, for even as they worked bricks, mortar and pieces of timber continued to rain about them and hung menacingly over their heads.
The people of this city should be grateful to these men ... and college students of this community who exercised their initiative and gave heroically of their time and energy in the aid to humanity.
There was no word to drive them, they needed none, but every man worked with the knowledge that upon his efforts might depend a life and although no persons were unearthed other than the known victims, the fact still remains that the men performed a service to humanity and acted as an example to the general public of this community."