DANDRIDGE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Highway Patrol has identified seven of the eight people killed in a fiery bus crash on Interstate 40 on Wednesday.
Six of the dead were members of the Front Street Baptist Church in Statesville, N.C. They include the bus driver, Randy Morrison, and his wife, Barbara Morrison, both 66.
Other victims from the church are 95-year-old Cloyce Matheny, 69-year-old Brenda Smith, 62-year-old Marsha McLelland and 73-year-old John Wright. All are from Statesville except Wright, who is from Mocksville, N.C.
The Highway Patrol says the bus veered across the median and into oncoming traffic after a tire blew out, hitting a sport utility vehicle and a tractor-trailer, which caught fire.
One person in the sport utility vehicle, Trent Roberts, 24, of Knoxville, was killed.
The driver of the tractor-trailer also was killed but has not yet been identified.
Another 14 people were injured in the crash and two were in critical condition at the University of Tennessee Medical Center.
Jerry Wright is the brother of victim John Wright. He said he heard the sad news from his nephew on Thursday morning. His brother’s wife, 62-year-old Beverly Wright, was seriously hurt in the crash.
His brother had been a member of the church for 50 years and had been a deacon, he added. “My brother was a good man. Everybody loved him,” Wright said.
Daniel Morrison, the son of Randolph and Barbara Morrison, told The Associated Press on Thursday that the couple had looked forward to the church outing as a big annual trip, adding they had put a lot into their church.
“I’m still processing it,” said Daniel Morrison, one of the couple’s five children, shaking his head.
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,” 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, 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.
“They were all friends,” he 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 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 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 being treated there. 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, six of whom 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 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 for a memorial.
“It hits the community as a whole when tragedy strikes. The whole community comes together,” he said.