KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Even before he knew the worst, pastor Tim Stutts set out for Knoxville to minister to his flock.
Stutts received word Wednesday that the bus carrying members of his North Carolina congregation home from a gospel jubilee in Gatlinburg, Tenn., had crashed, but it was hours before he knew the full story. The bus had blown a tire, veered across a highway median and crashed into a sport utility vehicle and tractor-trailer Wednesday, authorities said. Eight people were killed, fourteen injured.
"It was a good deal of time before we knew it was our church group," Stutts said. He drove with Jeremy Miller, the youth pastor at Front Street Baptist Church in Statesville, N.C., to the University of Tennessee's Medical Center, where the 12 survivors of the crash had been taken.
In all, there were 18 members of the church's "Young at Heart" team on the excursion.
Stutts described them as a tight-knit group of seniors who enjoyed traveling together. They were known for taking part in church missions and for visiting nursing homes and other churches to share the gospel with a zeal that belied their years, he said.
Stutts said he has talked to each survivor, including those in critical condition. "They are devastated. One of their first questions is about the others on the bus."
Clutching a black Bible, Stutts said the church grieves their loss, but celebrates their arrival in heaven. "We rejoice for them," he said.
Killed in the bus were Cloyce Matheny, 95; Brenda Smith, 69; Marsha Mclelland, 62; Randy Morrison 66, who was driving the bus, and Barbara Morrison, 66, his wife, all of Statesville; and John Wright, 73, of Mocksville, N.C.
Killed in a Chevrolet Tahoe that was hit when the bus crossed the median of Interstate 40 was Trent Roberts, 24, of Knoxville, who was thrown from the back seat. Two other occupants of the SUV have been released from the hospital.
Mose Farmer, 66, of New Orleans, was identified Friday as the driver of the tractor-trailer.
Authorities are examining the wreckage of the bus, which appeared to lose its front left tire, sending it skidding across a 10-yard-wide grass median and through a four-cabled restraining device and into oncoming traffic. The cables were frayed and tangled a quarter-mile in each direction.