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Harrowing night of ministry follows day of music & drama

MOBILE, Ala. (BP)–They left the University of Mobile at 11:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning dressed in matching polos and jeans. They arrived back at the campus at 6 a.m. Monday morning, exhausted, covered in diesel fuel, and sobered by a brush with death. One group member described it as “a day I’ll never forget.”

The day started as most weekends do for members of Witness, a student-led ministry team from the University of Mobile who travel across the state each weekend ministering in churches and with youth groups through drama and song. They met together several hours before departing to load the trailer with sound equipment and spend time in prayer for their March 16 concert at North Highlands Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. The group asked God to “use us however He wanted to,” recounted group member Betsy Wilkins, a sophomore English/language arts major from Helena, Ala. “We expected to be used in music and drama in church,” she said, “but God had other plans.”

En route back to campus at approximately 11:30 p.m., the group witnessed a horrific accident on Interstate 65 between the Fort Deposit and Greenville exits in Alabama.

“We had just stopped to switch drivers,” said group member Billy Parchman, a sophomore religion major from Gautier, Miss., who was driving at the time. “I had only gone a few miles when a semi-truck in front of me started to pass another large truck. As the semi was going around the other truck, he hit the back end of the truck. At that point the semi lost control and began to slide down the interstate sideways. The cab detached from the trailer and caught on fire, blocking the interstate. The other truck ran off the road into the ditch. I slammed on brakes. I shouldn’t have been able to stop because of all the diesel fuel on the road. A 15-passenger van full of people pulling a loaded trailer going 70 mph in the rain should not be able to stop. I slipped just walking on the road,” Parchman said.

The van did come to a complete stop less than 75 yards from the burning truck. Group member Betsy Wilkins of Helena, Ala., immediately jumped out of the van and started running toward the vehicle. As she realized the danger she went back to the van and fellow member Josh Bryan of Milton, Fla., accompanied her. The group’s student director, Falyn Vinson, a senior general studies major from Daphne, Ala., yelled for the two to come back, but they kept running.

Just hours before, the group had witnessed an accident as they were getting off the interstate in Birmingham. They saw an automobile fly through the air and land on its side. A man and two children were in the car. They escaped unharmed.

“After seeing the accident that afternoon,” Wilkins said, “I think I was ready to go help. I saw the severity of the situation and knew that staying in the van wasn’t going to help anything.”

Wilkins and Bryan crossed the median and ran down the opposite side of the interstate to avoid the fire. As they crossed the median on the other side of the burning truck, Wilkins lost her shoe in the mud.

“It was so dark where we were running, there were no other vehicles on the road at the time, and I really didn’t know what to expect when I ran around that truck. When I saw the cab detached and on fire I knew that if someone was in there, they weren’t coming out,” she said.

Bryan ran toward the cab to see if the driver was still inside. When he was almost there, he saw two men who had been in the other truck running toward the side of the road and saying, “Buddy, are you okay?” They could hear the driver moaning, and that’s when Wilkins and Bryan realized the tractor-trailer driver had been thrown from the truck.

Wilkins ran to the man who was laying face down in the road. As she knelt beside him she noticed he didn’t have any shoes on and was bleeding, but not profusely. She put her hand on his back and began to talk to him. The driver, Todd Dodson from North Carolina, was in immense pain after being thrown 30 feet from his burning truck.

Vinson arrived at the scene as Wilkins was kneeling beside Dodson.

“I could smell the diesel and the smoke from the fire,” Vinson said. “I was scared of what I was going to see when I came around that truck. As I saw him [Dodson] laying there, not knowing how badly he was hurt and how much time he may have had, the first thought that went through my mind was, ‘How fast can we tell him about Christ?'”

Group member John Firstbrook, a senior business major from Pelham, Ala., was still with the other members of Witness at the van. They all joined together to pray for the drivers of the two vehicles.

“Just knowing that three of my closest friends were on the other side of the flaming truck was so scary. I didn’t know how close they were to the fire or if they were okay,” Firstbrook said.

Bryan used his cell phone and called to let his fellow members know that they were all right. When Bryan and Wilkins realized Dodson didn’t have any spinal injuries, the men from the other truck helped Bryant move Dodson to safety away from the fire. Wilkins gave Dodson one of her shirts to wrap his hand and stop the bleeding. She ran back across the median and to the van to grab him a blanket because he was wet and cold.

“We started talking with Todd just to keep him occupied until the ambulance could get there,” Wilkins said. :We talked about his wife and kids in North Carolina. He was concerned about them. This was supposed to be his last trip as a truck driver. He was planning on entering the police academy. So, we prayed with him for his wife and kids to have peace when they found out.”

As Wilkins, Bryan and Vinson talked with Dodson, other members of Witness began picking up debris off the road and took advantage of the opportunity to witness to others at the crash site. By the end of the night they were “covered in diesel from head to toe,” as Firstbrook put it.

Wilkins said the reality of it all hit her after it was over. “When the ambulance took Todd away, he still had my shirt around his hand. I put the blanket in the ambulance with him and the three of us just went and stood by a police car,” she said. “Our other group members on the other side of the truck had a completely different experience. I just needed time to let it all sink in.”

Eventually the road was cleared and at 4 a.m. the group continued their drive back to Mobile, arriving at 6 a.m. with classes beginning at 8.

The following Thursday night, three of the group members received calls from Dodson’s wife, Addie, in North Carolina who had contacted the police department to find phone numbers for the Witness members who took care of her husband.

“When I heard the message on my cell phone from Addie Dodson, Todd’s wife, I just smiled. I called her back immediately,” Wilkins said. “Just to hear their voices, made me smile all night. Todd told me how God was opening doors in his life and that he wasn’t going in the police academy now. He wasn’t really sure what he was going to do now, but just to know that he is a Christian and how God is blessing him and his family through this is amazing to me.”

Vinson said Dodson “remembered all of our conversation. His wife told me how glad she was that we were there for him and that he didn’t have to go through all of this by himself. He said we were his angels.”

Members of Witness say the night on the interstate taught them much about God’s grace. Firstbrook said James 4:14 ran through his mind all night. “That verse says, ‘For what is your life, it is even a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.’ Man, was that real after that night. I thank God for His grace. Billy didn’t stop the van that night, God did.”

Bryan said the experience was a “blessing,” noting, “This is ministry. This is what it’s all about. We were able to minister to his physical needs and his spiritual needs.

“After this experience,” he said, “we come expecting God to move in a different way.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: MUSIC, DRAMA and MORE.

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  • Alicia Morris