Statesville, N.C. — Authorities on Thursday identified seven of the eight people killed Wednesday in a fiery bus crash in Tennessee.
A bus belonging to Front Street Baptist Church in Statesville blew a tire while traveling home on Interstate 40 from a religious gathering in Gatlinburg, Tenn., veered across a highway median and crashed into an SUV and a tractor-trailer. Fourteen people were injured in the crash, including two who remain in critical condition.
Six of the dead were members of the Front Street Baptist Church in Statesville, including bus driver Randy Morrison and his wife, Barbara Morrison, both 66. Other victims from the church were Cloyce Matheny, 95, Brenda Smith, 69, Marsha McLelland, 62, and John Wright, 73. All were from Statesville except Wright, who was from Mocksville.
A passenger in the SUV, Trent Roberts, 24, of Knoxville, Tenn., was killed, as was the driver of the tractor-trailer. His name hasn't been released.
Sgt. Bill Miller of the Tennessee Highway Patrol called the crash the worst he seen in his career. He said investigators planned to look into the driver's and the vehicle's safety records.
Wright's brother, Jerry Wright, said his nephew called him Thursday morning to tell him his brother was killed and his sister-in-law was seriously hurt in the crash. He said his brother had been a member of Front Street Baptist for 50 years and had been a deacon.
"My brother was a good man. Everybody loved him," Jerry Wright said.
A tight-knit group of seniors at the church was on its annual road trip, following a tradition for members of the Young at Heart Ministry to attend the Fall Jubilee in Gatlinburg, which features gospel singers and speakers. The event's website described the gathering as "three days of singing, laughing and preaching" for "mature and senior believers."
Inside the Statesville church on Wednesday evening, people were crying and hugging 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 who attended.
"There was a very long night for all of us," Rev. Rick Cruz, associate pastor at Front Street Baptist, said Thursday morning.
The church has received a tremendous outpouring of love from the community, Cruz said.
"We know that God is in control and that he is able to heal, even in this difficult time," he said. "We do rejoice that six of our loved ones are in heaven with the Lord."
George Stadtfeld, who has been a member of the church for eight years, said Wednesday 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."
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.
Marsha Williams, the owner of Family Friendly Restaurant in Statesville, said it was hard to go to work Thursday because of the community's loss.
"We've all had a moment this morning where we've teared up because we are going to miss them," Williams said, describing the relationships she and her employees have with some of the victims and their families.
"To the families involved, we will lift you up every single minute of this day," she said.
At N.B. Mills Elementary School in Statesville, where some of the members of the Young at Heart Ministry volunteered, students made cards for church members to show support for them and help the children cope with the tragedy.
"Our kids know there's something tragic going on, even if they don't know all the details yet," said Dawn Creason, spokeswoman for Iredell County-Statesville City Schools. "A lot of us hoped to wake up this morning and it wouldn't have really happened."
The school district plans to hold a memorial service at a high school auditorium.
"It hits the community as a whole when tragedy strikes. The whole community comes together," Superintendent Brady Johnson said.
The wreck left the bus on its side next to the tractor-trailer, lying across two lanes of traffic and extending partially into the median. It was not yet known what caused the tire to blow out.
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.
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 treated at the hospital. In addition to the two critical injuries, seven were in serious condition Thursday, three were stable and two had been released.
The injured were identified as Thomas Smith, 74, Joanna Elledge, 70, Benny Elledge, 72, Sandra Boyer, 67, Marvin Boyer, 74, Doris Swaim, 68, Steven Swaim, 68, Norma Hellard, 78, Brenda Jolly, 70, Wanda Martin, 63, and Ed Mclelland, 64, all of Statesville; Beverly Wright, 62, of Mocksville; and Tim Wacker, 28, and Jordan Payne, 24, both of Knoxville.
State Department of Safety and Homeland Security spokeswoman Dalya Qualls said Thursday that all lanes of I-40 had reopened by 5:15 a.m.