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Church group’s week at camp begins with tragedy, sorrow

DAVIS, Okla. (BP)–It was an emotion-filled week for campers from the First Baptist Church of El Reno, Okla., at Falls Creek Baptist Assembly.
What started off as a week of anticipation at the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma-sponsored camp turned into one of tragedy and grief as two of the campers were killed and six others injured, three seriously, when a van transporting them to the Arbuckle Mountains assembly grounds July 7 was involved in an accident on Interstate 35 in Moore.
“The atmosphere this week has been one of sorrow, but at other times it has been fun and recreation,” said Pat Moore, who cooked for the El Reno Falls Creek group.
“There’s been a lot of open discussion. We’ve cried a lot and laughed a lot. We’re just going through the normal process of grief.”
The accident occurred, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol reported, when a southbound vehicle driven by Adam G. Sepulveda, 18, made an illegal lane change, striking the El Reno minivan. The southbound van overturned several times in the median, stopping in the northbound lanes where it was struck by a northbound pickup.
Although OHP troopers said seat belts were in use in all the vehicles except for the back-seat passengers in the minivan, six passengers were thrown out of the van.
Emily Wild, 14, of Yukon, and Marie Comer, 15, of Calumet, died in the crash. Comer was a member of Hester Community Church, but was traveling to Falls Creek with the El Reno church members.
The driver of the van, Jackie Reeves, 45, and Jessica Baker, 14, were treated at Norman Regional Hospital and released.
Rebekah Swaim, 14, Kelsey Wint, 12, and Jessica Lee, 14, were taken to Southwest Medical Center in Oklahoma City. Heather Fuhr, 15, was transferred from Norman to Mercy Health Center in Oklahoma City.
At last report, Lee was still in critical condition but showing signs of improvement.
“They have started feeding Jessica through a tube, and have removed some of the tubes from her arm,” said John Chennault, pastor of the El Reno church. “It is still a critical time for her, preventing infections and pneumonia from setting in, but we are grateful for every little sign of improvement we see.”
Chennault said Swain was moved from ICU to a room and has started whirlpool therapy. Both she and Lee will require skin grafting for burns suffered from sliding on pavement, he said.
Fuhr has six cracked vertebra and one compressed one and has been fitted with a back brace.
“She is in a lot of pain,” said Chennault. “We expect a full recovery, but it will be long-term.”
Wint was released from the hospital.
The minivan was among four vehicles carrying 77 campers to Falls Creek. Leading the way was the church bus, followed by the church van, then a college girl in a car by herself and the minivan.
The girl in the car saw the accident in her rear-view mirror, raced ahead to alert the van, which turned around and went to the scene of the accident. She then stopped the bus, where youth minister Harold Petree got off and rode with her to the scene.
“At that point the kids on the bus knew only that there had been an accident,” said Falls Creek sponsor Shirley Smith.
“When we got to Falls Creek, the office had a message that two had been killed, and the campers were to call their parents to tell them they were all right.”
Smith said at first they didn’t know if they would stay at Falls Creek, but “the kids said they felt safe here.”
“We told them we would tell them the truth and not hide anything from them,” she added.
Smith and Moore said there was a constant stream of people coming by the El Reno cabin offering condolences.
“First Baptist Church of Midwest City brought wooden cross necklaces for every camper,” said Moore.
“Some boys from First Baptist Church of Healdton came by and told us they had just lost a friend, and knew how we felt,” Smith said.
The women said the Falls Creek staff, including director Gary Fielding and Bobby Lipscomb, of the safety patrol, and Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma personnel have been among those lending support and comfort.
“We are appreciative of the fact that a number of convention staff came by and gave support,” said Chennault.
Seventeen of the campers along with Petree and his wife and two workers returned to El Reno for Wild’s funeral on Wednesday and Comer’s on Thursday. First Baptist Church, Durant, loaned its bus for the trip back to El Reno.
Chennault said the general attitude in the church has been one of looking to the Lord and trusting him.
“We are counting our blessings because we could have easily lost eight rather than two,” Chennault noted. “We certainly recognize that and are grateful that the Lord spared the other six who were in the van.”
Chennault added the Lord has already blessed with witnessing opportunities, sharing and “the grace of God in our lives these days.”
BGCO Executive Director Anthony Jordan said, “This tragic event has reminded all of us of the fragility of life. These young people were on their way to Falls Creek, which is dedicated to declaring the hope of eternity to Generation X. It causes us to redouble our efforts of reaching youth with the claims of Christ.”
Jordan said the entire family of Oklahoma Baptists extends sympathy to all those who have suffered this great loss.
“We also offer our prayer support to those injured and the many who have been touched by this tragedy,” Jordan said. “Pastor John Chennault and youth minister Harold Petree have done an incredible job of giving comfort, strength and hope in the midst of the storm.”
Chennault acknowledged appreciation to a multitude of churches and people outside of El Reno who have called, sent cards and been supportive through the tragedy.
“We are so pleased and blessed by the multitude of people who have responded,” he said.

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  • Dana Williamson