James Combs Park honors local hero of March 1961 accident in the river
By Jim Blount
July 10, 1996
A 65-acre Hamilton Municipal Park on the west side of the Great Miami River east of North B Street bears the name of the late James Combs, one of several heroes who responded to a river accident Wednesday afternoon, March 15, 1961.
The drama began when a boat operated by Donald Cornette, 25, of Ridgelawn Avenue, and containing his three-year-old son, Gregory; and David Van Oflen, also 3 and of Ridgelawn Avenue, stalled above the dam north of the Black Street Bridge.
The small craft drifted toward the dam. Cornette grabbed both boys as they were carried over the dam. The trio was momentarily caught in a whirlpool below the apron of the dam. With help, Cornette and his son quickly escaped from the swift, near-freezing water, but the Van Oflen boy was pulled downstream by the current.
Cornette believed he had been assisted by Combs, 25, also a resident of Ridgelawn Avenue. Combs, with Norman Anthony of Hamilton, had been in a parked car near the dam. When they saw Cornette and the boys needed help, Combs ran to the river while Anthony went to a nearby store to telephone for help.
Credited with the Cornette rescue were four members of a Baltimore & Ohio Railroad yard crew, who had been working at the Champion Paper & Fibre Co. They were Robert Woolum, Ray Halcomb and Herbert Ely, all of Hamilton, and Alonzo Keith of West Middletown.
From the east bank of the river, an off-duty Champion employee tried to assist Van Oflen, who was wearing a life jacket. Arnold W. Parrett, 22, entered the cold water south of the Black Street Bridge, but became exhausted before he could reach the helpless youth, who was swept downstream.
Hamilton police and fire units, Butler County sheriff's deputies and other rescue crews reached the riverbanks in moments.
A 30-year-old fire truck, responding from the fire station in the nearby Hamilton Municipal Building, broke down on North Monument Avenue. Captain Elbert Davis and his crew carried ropes to the High-Main Street Bridge. Parrett -- who appeared to have gone under twice -- caught one of the ropes near the bridge. Fireman John Furnier, 37, was lowered into the river and held Parrett until help arrived.
It came in the form of a boat piloted by Fred Cupp, 29, a New Miami police officer and president of the Butler County sheriff's boat patrol, and Ben Stivers, a Fisher Body employee.
Meanwhile, Van Oflen passed under the bridge, still in his life jacket . According to dozens of spectators watching from the bridge and banks, he appeared lifeless. That didn't deter Malcolm Orr Cook Jr., 34, who jumped into the river in an attempt to save the three-year-old boy. Instead, Cook was washed onto a pile of driftwood under the Columbia Bridge.
Cupp -- with Stivers, Parrett and Furnier in the boat -- headed downstream and located the boy. About 100 yards south of the Columbia Bridge -- and nearly two miles from the accident scene -- the frightened three-year-old was pulled into the craft. Then the rescue boat collected Cook from the pile of debris.
It wasn't until the Cornettes, Van Oflen and Parrett were taken to Mercy Hospital that it was realized that Combs was missing. Rescue crews returned to the river and started a search. More than a month later, the body of James Glenn Combs was found in the Ohio River by a fisherman. It was recovered near Lawrenceburg, Ind., Tuesday afternoon, April 18, 1961.
"James Combs was a hero in the true sense of the word," said Ohio Gov. Michael V. DiSalle. "He forfeited his own life so that others might live."
The Armco employee, a 1954 graduate of Hamilton High School, left behind a wife and two sons, ages two years and seven months. Later, the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission awarded him its bronze hero medal. Parrett and Cook also were honored for their heroic rescue attempts.