Six members of a church in Statesville, N.C., and two others died yesterday after a horrific crash in eastern Tennessee involving a church bus, an SUV, and a semi-truck. Another 14 of the 18 elderly church members on board the bus were injured, with two remaining in critical condition.
Family members have identified three of the dead, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel, including the driver of the bus, Randolph Morrison, and his wife Barbara, and another of the bus’ passengers, John Wright
The bus was headed back to North Carolina around 2 p.m. Wednesday as members of Front Street Baptist Church’s Young At Heart group were returning from the annual Fall Jubilee in Gatlinburg, Tenn. As the bus traveled on Interstate 40 near Dandridge, Tenn., its front right tire blew out, causing the bus to cross over the median and into oncoming traffic, clipping the SUV, and crashing into the semi-truck. Flames engulfed the truck, killing the driver and spreading to the trailer, which was full of paper products. The bus carrying the seniors flipped over on its side and sprawled across both lanes of traffic. A passenger in the SUV also died.
Traffic closed in both directions for about 15 hours as emergency response crews rescued survivors and evacuated several by helicopter to the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville. Dandridge Fire Chief Andrew Riley told the Sentinel he could see the smoke before he even arrived on the scene: “You could hear the urgency on the radio. Honestly, I said a prayer because I knew we were in a bad situation.”
Others stopped to help, including Fred Lucas, a doctor at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center in Ohio. He and his wife were driving to Asheville, N.C., when they saw smoke from the crash. He told the Sentinel that they did their best to help, even though they lacked proper medical equipment: “We saw bodies all over the ground and some people walking around, bloody. One woman was obviously dead, and I pulled her away from the fire, and I pulled another live woman.”
Elaine Stadtfeld, a member of the church who went on the trip but did not take the bus, called her husband right after the crash. She was in tears. Her husband, George Stadtfeld, said he knew everyone on the bus: “They were all friends.”
He said everyone was “shaken,” but added his faith gave him hope. “As bad as it is, they’re all Christians and I know where they’re at,” Stadtfeld said. “I’ll join them later.”
The Young at Heart group ministers to older members of the congregation, who take road trips and sing in the senior choir together. Dionne Stutts, wife of the church’s senior pastor, Tim Stutts, said, “We are devastated and just asking for the people to be praying.”
Wednesday night, the church held a memorial service cordoned off by police to keep out reporters. Associate Pastor Rick Cruz said the night was “very long” for everyone, but the church has seen a great deal of love from the community. “We know God is in control and is able to heal,” he said.