Church mourns bus crash that killed 8

DANDRIDGE, Tenn. (AP) – After the fiery crash of a church bus in Tennessee, Daniel Morrison knew a phone call would be coming.

His parents were among a group of seniors from a North Carolina church who had eagerly awaited their big annual outing, a trip to a 3-day festival in Gatlinburg, Tenn., featuring gospel singers and speakers.

But on the way back Wednesday to Statesville in North Carolina, the church bus carrying the members blew a tire, veered across a highway median and crashed into a sport utility vehicle and tractor-trailer, police said.

All told, the wreck on Interstate 40 in northeastern Tennessee killed eight people, leaving the bus on its side next to the tractor-trailer, the wreckage extending across two lanes of traffic and partly into the median. Fourteen others were hurt, two of those in critical condition.

When Morrison was told about the crash, he feared the worst.

Then a pastor at the Front Street Baptist Church called late at night and broke the devastating news: His parents, Randy and Barbara Morrison, both 66 and married for 50 years, were dead.

His father, who had once worked for a trucking company, and his mother, once a school teacher, were now gone.

“I’m still processing it,” said Daniel Morrison, one of the couple’s five children, pausing to shake his head. He said both had eagerly awaited the trip, having devoted so much to their church.

“I know the Lord has a reason for everything, but I don’t know what it is yet,” he said.

The Tennessee Highway Patrol on Thursday afternoon identified seven of the eight people killed.

Six of the dead were members of the Statesville church, including Randy Morrison, who police said was driving the bus, and his wife, Barbara.

Other victims from the church are 95-year-old Cloyce Matheny, 69-year-old Brenda Smith, 62-year-old Marsha McLelland and 73-year-old John Wright. All were from Statesville except Wright, from Mocksville, N.C.

The Highway Patrol says the bus, once the tire ruptured, crossed the median into oncoming traffic. The tractor-trailer caught fire.

One person in the sport utility vehicle, Trent Roberts, 24, of Knoxville, was killed.

The driver of the tractor-trailer also was killed but has not yet been identified.

Jerry Wright is the brother of victim John Wright. He said he heard the sad news from his nephew on Thursday morning. His brother’s wife, 62-year-old Beverly Wright, was seriously hurt.

His brother had been a member of the church for 50 years and had been a deacon, he added. “My brother was a good man. Everybody loved him,” Wright said.

The tight-knit group of seniors was on its annual road trip, following a tradition for members of the Young at Heart ministry to attend the Fall Jubilee in Gatlinburg. The event’s website described the gathering as “three days of singing, laughing and preaching” for “mature and senior believers.”

The church’s Young at Heart ministry reaches out to older members of the congregation. They take road trips together and sing in the senior choir.

Inside the Statesville church on Wednesday evening, people cried and hugged each other. One woman whispered, “It’s going to be all right” while hugging another woman. Police cordoned off the church to prevent reporters from talking to those inside.

“There was a very long night for all of us,” Front Street Baptist associate pastor Rick Cruz said Thursday morning. But he said the church has received a tremendous outpouring of love from the community.

“We know God is in control and is able to heal,” he said.

What caused the tire to blow out isn’t yet known.

The bus itself didn’t actually catch on fire, but there was some “heat exposure,” Jefferson County Emergency Management Director Brad Phillips said. Emergency responders were able to remove people rapidly away from the flames and other Good Samaritans provided assistance.

The SUV was about 50 yards away from the tractor-trailer. It was still upright, but the back half had been ripped away.

The injured were taken to the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville. Late Wednesday, center spokesman Jim Ragonese said 14 people from the crash were being treated there. He said two were in critical condition, seven in serious condition, and five in stable condition.

State Department of Safety and Homeland Security spokeswoman Dalya Qualls said in an email that 18 people were on the bus. Qualls said Thursday that all lanes of the interstate reopened by 5:15 a.m. Thursday.

George Stadtfeld, a member of the church for eight years, said in the hours afterward that he knew everyone on the bus. He said his wife, Elaine, had been on the trip but didn’t travel on the bus. He said she called him crying.

“We’re all shaken,” he said. “As bad as it is, they’re all Christians and I know where they’re at. I’ll join them later.”

___

Travis Loller contributed to this report from Nashville, Tenn. Weiss reported from Statesville, N.C.