DANDRIDGE, Tenn. (AP) — For months, a tight-knit group of seniors at a North Carolina church had been looking forward to the road trip.
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 Front Street Baptist Church’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 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 memorial service was held Wednesday evening. Police cordoned off the church to prevent reporters from talking to those who attended.
Following the service, Front Street Baptist associate pastor Rick Cruz remarked, “This is a time of difficulty, but we trust in God … that He’s fair. … All your prayers are appreciated.”
George Stadtfeld, who has been a member of the church for eight years, said 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.
The interstate was completely shut down in both directions, and the scene was eerily quiet, despite the presence of many emergency workers.
“This is an extremely horrific event,” Tennessee Highway Patrol spokesman Sgt. Bill Miller said at an evening news conference.
He said authorities don’t know yet what caused the tire to blow out.
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 at the hospital. 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 18 people were on the bus and six of them were killed. One person among the three in the SUV was killed and the tractor-trailer driver also died.
Qualls said Thursday that all lanes of the interstate had reopened by 5:15 a.m.
Brady Johnson, superintendent of the Iredell County-Statesville City Schools, said a lot of people who work for the school system are church members. Johnson said he knew people on the bus and they were awaiting word on the conditions.
Johnson said the church had adopted N.B. Mills Elementary School, providing volunteers and school supplies for needy children.
Now, the school system is offering a high school auditorium as a site for a memorial.
“It hits the community as a whole when tragedy strikes. The whole community comes together,” he said.
Loller reported from Nashville, Tenn. Weiss reported from Statesville, N.C. Associated Press writer Skip Foreman in Charlotte, N.C., contributed to this report.