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Church bus crash claims 7, injures 33

WACO, Texas (BP)–A church bus carrying more than 30 members of Memorial Baptist Church in Temple, Texas, crashed on Interstate 35 south of Waco Feb. 14, killing seven people and injuring 33 others.

The crash occurred near the town of Hewitt at 10 a.m. as the bus was traveling northbound in heavy rain. The church group was en route to an afternoon Bill Gaither Homecoming concert at Reunion Arena in Dallas.

According to Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman Tom Vinger, the driver of the charter bus swerved to avoid stalled traffic and lost control of the vehicle. The bus slid into oncoming traffic and rolled onto an SUV, killing two of its three occupants instantly. Witnesses said that several of the passengers were ejected from the bus.

DPS spokesman Cpl. Charlie Morgan said rain may have played a factor in the accident, but the exact cause was still under investigation.

More than 75 emergency workers from nearly two dozen jurisdictions converged on the accident scene and administered aid to the injured. Fifteen injured passengers were taken to Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco. Another 18 passengers were taken to Providence Health Center, also in Waco.

Killed aboard the bus were Dolores Hinton, 72; Jo Freeman, 70; Martha McKee, 77; and husband and wife, Melvin, 76, and Delois “Speedie” Akers, 72. Killed in the SUV were Brenda Dobelbower, 48, and Janice Roberson, 61. Donnie Hagen, 52, also in the SUV, was taken to the hospital and remains in critical condition.

Dobelbower, Roberson and Hagen were all administrators in the health careers department of McLennan Community College, according to Kim Patterson, a spokeswoman for the college.

Roy Parker, pastor of Memorial Baptist Church, was running errands Friday when his secretary paged him and added “911” to the message. He called his office and learned of the accident. He then traveled to the scene of the accident, where he comforted several of the victims.

“These people are my friends. They are my family, and I love them very much,” Parker said at the scene.

When word of the accident spread to Temple, members of the 112-year-old Memorial Baptist Church began to assemble in the sanctuary to await news and pray.

Parker returned to the church for a prayer service Friday night and attempted to encourage his congregation.

“It will be a sad, sad city when word gets out,” Parker said of those who had been killed. “We are devastated. I feel numb. … These are some of the finest Christians on God’s good earth, and I know where they are — they are in heaven.”

Church deacon Dick Stafford told the Austin American-Statesman that most of the passengers aboard the bus were respected members of the community. Most, he said, were over 60 years old.

Parker said the church had received numerous phone calls from people around the country who were supporting the church in prayer, but one caller said that the accident was God’s judgment upon the church.

“Sometimes bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people,” Parker told the Waco Tribune-Herald. “The final page has not turned. All things will be equal in the end. We know God loves us, and this is not part of his wrath.

“We feel a sense of peace now because we know, as Christians, Jesus said, ‘I go to prepare a place for you, and I will receive you there.’ We know where they are, and we know we will see them again someday.”

Parker added that the church was now focusing on comforting those who had been left behind. Michael Haynes, a police and fire chaplain in Temple who ministered to the accident victims and members of the church, said the church would weather the storm.

“These people take life pretty well. They’ve been around long enough to know that bad things happen to good people, but it’s still tragic,” Haynes said.

News of the bus crash reached Gaither shortly before his concert was scheduled to begin. He issued a statement to the media before the concert.

“Our thoughts and prayers go to each of the victims of this tragic accident, and to their families. These individuals will undoubtedly be present in our hearts as we sing about the hope of heaven during the concert they were traveling to attend today,” Gaither told the concertgoers at Reunion Arena of the accident.

“All are part of a tight-knit family,” Gaither said. “When one part of our family is aching, all are aching.”

A nine-member investigative team from the National Transportation Safety Board was dispatched to the site of the accident, according to NTSB spokeswoman Lauren Peduzzi. The group will examine the scene and attempt to discover how information gathered from the site can be used to prevent future accidents.

Preliminary investigations of the bus company revealed no pattern of accidents, and the driver was not suspected of operating the bus under the influence of alcohol or drugs, authorities said.

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  • Gregory Tomlin