The news of the deaths of five members of the Columbus W. Cole family cloaked the little community of Midway and the surrounding area in a shroud of grief.
One lone survivor. The mother, the newspaper had said.
But that was not true.
There was another survivor of that tragic accident on that cold, January day in 1940 — an unknown survivor. Ester Joyce Cole.
“My mother was five months pregnant with me when the accident happened,” Joyce Cole Austin said. “How she survived and how I survived, no one knows. I guess it was just God’s will. I don’t know how my mother was able to handle losing her husband and her children like that. I just don’t know. I do know that she was a strong woman and a godly person. She accepted what had happened without any bitterness. She never questioned why her family had been taken. She was a kind and gentle soul.”
As close as Joyce and her mother were, Tessie Cole seemed to fear getting too close. Maybe she was afraid of losing all that she had left in the world — Ester Joyce Cole.
“We loved each other so much,” Joyce said. “So good. But it all boiled down to Mama (Mary Elizabeth McGrady).”
After the accident, Tessie Cole moved into the house with her mother (Mama McGrady) and dad, Bob McGrady. Four months later Ester Joyce Cole was born.
“After Papa died, it was just Mother, Mama McGrady and me,” Joyce said. “I loved my mother but not like Mama McGrady. She was the most special person to me in the whole wide world. I remember once when my aunt Lorene came to get Mama McGrady to go spend some time with her. I started crying and begging her, ‘Mama, please don’t leave me.’ I squawled and carried on so that Mama McGrady finally told Aunt Lorene that she couldn’t leave us. I didn’t have a daddy, but I had two special mothers, and l loved them both so very much.”
Growing up in the shadow of a tragedy wasn’t easy. Tessie Cole was very protective of her “only” child and that sometimes made life rather unpleasant for Joyce, especially during the teenage years.
“I came from a family of respect, and I can still hear Mother say, ‘Ester Joyce, do you hear me?’ but I never sassed her,” Joyce said. “I respected my mother so much for all that she had been through and I loved her dearly.”
But Joyce’s mother talked little about her daddy and almost never about the accident.
“I think it was too painful for her, and she didn’t want to remember,” Joyce said. “To talk about Daddy would have been to remember.”
But Joyce wanted to know about that day, January 18, 1940, when she lost her daddy, her three sisters and brother. About the day, when her life’s path was drastically altered and she would grow up the only child of a widow woman.
“Several years ago, I was driving to Union Springs to see my uncle, Otis McGrady, and suddenly I just had the feeling that I wanted to know more. I had to know more about my daddy and that day.”
Joyce sought out her cousin, Pete Cole, who was deputy sheriff of Bullock County.
“I told him that I had things on my mind that I had to find out,” Joyce said. “I told him that I didn’t know where to start, but I wanted to know about my daddy. He told me that ‘Uncle Lummie’ was a very happy man and a good swimmer. He told me that, if Daddy’s neck had not been broken in the accident, he probably could have saved my sisters and brother.
“The story that he told was that Mother and Daddy and the children were coming home from my Granddaddy Will Cole’s house. Granddaddy had been sick and Daddy had been sitting up with him. As they crossed the river bridge, the front wheels of the car must have struck a rough place on the bridge stringers and threw it off the bridge.”
Tessie Cole was thrown from the car.
“I asked Pete if he knew Nick Phillips, who along with the Lord, had saved my mother – and me,” Joyce said. “He said that, if he wasn’t mistaken, Mr. Phillips had gotten my mother out of the river and helped get the bodies out. Later that day, I met the man who saved my life and my mother’s. He was a big and very kind man.”
Phillips told Joyce that the accident that claimed the life of her family was the worse thing he had ever seen.
“He said he had met Daddy’s car earlier, and they exchanged waves,” Joyce said. “He and his work crew had stopped at a country store and heard about the accident. He said when he got there, he could hear my mother hollering for help. She was clinging to a bridge piling. Someone tied a rope around him, and he got my mother out.”
Phillips told Joyce that he waded out in the water to try to find the car.
“He stepped on the car and on another step, he stepped on Daddy’s head,” Joyce said. “My daddy’s neck was broken so Mr. Phillips got his knife and cut a hole in the top of the car and got Daddy out. He said they had already gotten the two little girls out of the water. Neither of them could swim. They hooked chains around the car and pulled it out. The car was a model ‘A’ coupe, which had a rumble seat. My little brother and one of my sisters were in there. When the car went in the water, the seat closed and caused the little ones to drown.
“Mr. Phillips said one thing that just about killed him was, as he was trying to get the water out of the little girl’s lungs, — ‘Lord have mercy, that was the most beautiful little girl I had ever seen’ – she looked at him and smiled and then she died.”
Joyce said they carried her daddy and all four of the children to her Aunt Lois and Uncle Wyle Shepherd’s house, which was right up the hill from the river.
“They were laid out on mattresses and quilts by the fire until other arrangements could be made,” Joyce said. “They were buried at Smuteye in the Indian Creek Baptist Church cemetery. Four months later I was born.”
This is a story that Joyce Cole Austin has held close to her heart for more than 20 years. She understands how difficult it must have been for her mother to share what happen. It has been much the same for her.
But, on this Mother’s Day, she marvels at the strength of her mother, who was able to stand upright in the face of such a tragic loss. She found a place in heart for Joyce and her two sons, Jeffrey and Phillip, and was able to reach out to them in love.
“Mother adored Jeffrey and Phillip and they adored her,” Joyce said. “Even with so much tragedy in her life, she knew a lot of love. Mama McGrady lived with us and there has never been a more loving person. She helped Mother through those really dark times. Both Mother and Daddy’s families supported us and loved us. Daddy’s mother, Martha Dean Cole, was there for Mother and me just like Mama McGrady was and so were my grandfathers, Bob McGrady and Will Cole. All of our families. It took the love and support of both families to heal the hurt of a cold day in January 1940, when the river took the lives of a father and four of his children and the Lord spared the lives of his wife, Tessie Cole, and their unborn child, Ester Joyce Cole Austin.