DANDRIDGE, Tenn. — A bus taking a church group of home to North Carolina blew a tire, veered across a highway median and crashed into a sport utility vehicle and tractor-trailer Wednesday in a fiery wreck that killed eight people, authorities said.
Fourteen other people were hurt in the accident in northeastern Tennessee, and all but two of them had been taken to hospitals, state Department of Safety and Homeland Security spokeswoman Dalya Qualls said in an email. The extent of their injuries was not immediately available.
The bus was carrying members of the Front Street Baptist Church in Statesville, N.C., which is about 140 miles east of the crash site. They had been to the 17th annual Fall Jubilee in Gatlinburg, a three-day gathering featuring gospel singers and speakers.
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.
George Stadfeld, who has been a member of the church for eight years, said he knew everyone on the bus.
“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 Fall Jubilee website described the event as “three days of singing, laughing and preaching” for “mature and senior believers.”
After the accident, a banner was posted on top of the home page saying, “Our thoughts are with our friends at Front Street Baptist Church in their tragic loss. … all the Jubilee team have you in our prayers.”
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.
“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 chartered bus crossed the median about 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. Debris littered the interstate.
The SUV was about 50 yards away from the other vehicles. 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. The loudest noise came from helicopters flying overhead.
Susan Wyatt, a spokeswoman for the University of Tennessee Medical Center, said all of the injured were adults. Four were flown to the emergency room.
Qualls said 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.
In Statesville, Paul Sneed said the church was located in a tight-knit community.
“This is a typical small town and we all pull together when these kinds of things happen.”