October 3, 2013

Victims in Tenn. bus crash belonged to tightknit church group

Eight are dead and 14 other people are injured in the accident, including two in critical condition.

The Associated Press

DANDRIDGE, Tenn. — For months, a tight-knit group of seniors at a North Carolina church had been looking forward to the road trip.

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Emergency workers respond to a crash involving a passenger bus and a tractor-trailer near Dandridge, Tenn., on Wednesday. A spokeswoman for Tennessee’s Safety Department said the bus was traveling in northeast Tennessee when it crossed the median and struck the other two vehicles. The tractor-trailer caught fire and the bus overturned.

The Associated Press

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In this aerial photo, emergency workers respond to a crash involving a passenger bus, a tractor-trailer and an SUV near Dandridge, Tenn., on Wednesday. Authorities said the bus, carrying members of a North Carolina church group, veered across the highway median and crashed into the other vehicles in a fiery wreck that killed eight people.

The Associated Press

Additional Photos Below

It was a tradition for members of the Young at Heart Ministry to attend the annual Fall Jubilee in Gatlinburg, Tenn., an event featuring gospel singers and speakers. The event’s website described the gathering as “three days of singing, laughing and preaching” for “mature and senior believers.”

But on the way back to Statesville, N.C., on Wednesday, the bus carrying the Front Street Baptist Church group blew a tire, veered across a highway median and crashed into a sport utility vehicle and tractor-trailer in a fiery wreck that killed eight people.

Fourteen other people were hurt in the accident in northeastern Tennessee, including two who were in critical condition.

Church members on Wednesday night were waiting for more details. None of the victims have been identified.

“This is hard,” said Jerry Wright, whose 73-year-old brother, John, and his wife were on the bus. “You try not to think the worst, but it gets to you.”

He believes his brother may have been driving the church bus because he had done so in the past.

“If he was driving, it’s going to be bad,” he said. “I’ve been trying to ring them. I’ve been calling their phone, but it keeps ringing and ringing and ringing.”

Inside the Statesville church, people were crying and hugging each other. One woman whispered, “It’s going to be all right” while hugging another woman. A service was held Wednesday evening. Police cordoned off the church to prevent reporters from talking to those who attended.

“There was a very long night for all of us,” Front Street Baptist associate pastor Rick Cruz said Thursday morning.

The church has received a tremendous outpouring of love from the community, Cruz said.

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

George Stadtfeld, who has been a member of the church for eight years, said Wednesday 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.”

The church’s Young at Heart Ministry reaches out to older members of the congregation. They go on road trips together and sing in the senior choir. The enjoy each other’s company, Stadtfeld said.

“They were all friends,” he said.

Dionne Stutts, wife of Front Street Baptist senior pastor Tim Stutts, said her husband and another pastor from the church were en route to the wreck site.

“They had been there and they were on their way home today,” she said. “We are devastated and just ask for the people to be praying.”

Authorities said the bus crossed the median and the cable barriers that divide the interstate around 2 p.m., clipped the oncoming SUV and slammed into the tractor-trailer, which burst into flames.

Several hours after the crash, clouds of smoke still rose from the tractor-trailer and tree branches that lined the highway were charred.

The bus was on its side next to the tractor-trailer, lying across two lanes of traffic and extending partially into the median.

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 who were alive rapidly to get them 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 completely ripped off.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Emergency personnel search the scene near a collision involving a bus on I-40, in Dandridge, Tenn, on Wednesday.

The Associated Press

  


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