NORCROSS, Ga. (BP)–Amy Cruce’s best friend hung on to the bottom of an overturned footbridge above a Honduran ravine. “I’m slipping!” she yelled. Cruce closed her eyes for just a moment. When she opened her eyes, her friend had fallen.
Bill Cordrey had hung on to the wooden suspension bridge as long as he could. After he fell, he looked up to see his wife hold on for just moments longer, then tumble through the air and the trees into the ravine near him.
Thrown immediately from the bridge, Ron Sheintal lay dazed on the ground in the ravine.
He turned to check on his wife, who also had fallen.
Above them their 18-year-old daughter hung precariously from the swinging bridge. “Hang on, Allison! Don’t let go!” he yelled.
At the bottom of the ravine, Chuck Brattain laid, unable to catch his breath. With a collapsed lung and broken bones he couldn’t breathe. Less injured teammates rushed to help him.
Carol Lathe wasn’t standing far from the entrance to the bridge. When it unexpectedly tipped, she was able to hold on until someone pulled her to safety. Looking down into the ravine, nearly three stories below, she saw her husband lying motionless.
“Why isn’t anyone helping him?” she wondered.
Another team member came to her. “It’s bad,” he said, quietly. “It’s real bad.”
Lathe’s 49-year-old husband, T.J., had fallen about 30 feet, landing on a rock at the bottom of the ravine, instantly breaking his neck. He died at the scene.
The peaceful afternoon photo shoot on the picturesque bridge had turned into a nightmare for the team from Glover Baptist Church in Norcross, Ga. It was the second trip to Honduras for the group, which partnered with Grace Fellowship Church in Snellville, a sister congregation not affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Convention.
David Drozek, a missionary surgeon with the mission-sending agency Cornerstone, was the tie between the two churches. Drozek’s parents attend Grace Fellowship while his sister, Amy Cruce, attends Glover church.
The first time the two congregations joined forces for a trip was in September 2001. Team members were working at the hospital, called Loma de La Luz, when they learned of the terrorist attacks in New York City and the nation’s capital.
“The hospital functions mostly as a clinic. They do some outpatient surgeries with the five missionary doctors and some nurses,” Cruce said.
The team left Atlanta on Feb. 15 with plans to come home Feb. 23. The week-long trip to the city of Balfate included a construction team helping to expand the hospital and a medical team who helped with patients.
‘A GOD-INSPIRED TRIP’
“Short of this tragic accident, we had a successful, God-inspired mission trip,” said Ron Sheintal, a Glover church member. “We truly sensed the spirit of God the whole week. Even though we were from two different churches and working with another church from Minnesota, we operated like one group. We dug ditches, we worked hard. But it went well. At night Bill (Cordrey) would pull out his guitar and we’d sing for hours.
“It was better than family. It was sweet fellowship.”
Cordrey, the team leader from Glover, said, “When we were working, it was in a spirit of praise.”
The group finished their work Saturday morning, the day before they were scheduled to leave. After lunch, they cleaned up and made plans to go to Drozek’s home to rest before heading out for a last meal at a local restaurant.
“We thought it would be a great time to get a picture together,” Cruce recalled. “A lot of teams had their picture made on the suspension bridge that stretched across the ravine between two hills. It connected the housing area with the hospital.
“We had no fear of the bridge, we’d been crossing it all week with wheelbarrows of bricks and concrete and building materials.”
The group filed onto the wooden swinging bridge, holding on to the cables that served as handrails. T.J. Lathe was the first on the bridge, followed by Cruce. In the next moment the center of gravity apparently shifted as the members all stood on one side, and the bridge flipped and began tossing bodies into the ravine.
Some team members were immediately thrown from the bridge, others hung on and dropped minutes later. Two team members were able to hang on until they were rescued.
Cruce was standing over the deepest part of the ravine, a nearly four-story drop, when the bridge flipped, her legs becoming entangled in the cables. She hung upside down for nearly 10 minutes, watching as her friends fell one by one into the ravine.
Her brother grabbed a bright yellow heavy-duty extension cord and tossed it to her, with instructions to tie it around herself. Just as she wrapped it around her midsection, the bridge shifted, dropping her into the air. Unable to pull her to safety, he lowered her into the ravine until others could ease their way down.
As she sat at the bottom of the ravine, Carol Lathe joined her.
“We prayed together. We cried together. Then Carol went to be with T.J.,” Cruce said.
Medical team members at the hospital went to work helping the most injured. Others laid hands on the survivors, praying out loud as they worked.
Chuck Brattain, co-deacon chairman at Glover church, had never been on a mission trip. Just weeks before the team left, he felt God calling him to join the team.
Brattain, who fell next to Lathe, was critically injured in the fall and was life-flighted to a Houston hospital. He initially rallied at the Texas facility but took a turn for the worse after suffering a stroke. Brattain, 72, died from complications on March 12. He is survived by his wife of 42 years, Beverly, and two children.
Steve Varner, pastor of the church, said Brattain was a retired carpenter and cabinetmaker who was using those skills at the hospital in Honduras.
“THIS WILL MAKE OUR CHURCH EVEN STRONGER”
“I know in times like these, non-believers will question where is God. But believers will know that God was present with us on the bridge,” Bill Cordrey said.
“We already had a special bond because of the work we were doing there. I think this is going to make our church even stronger.”
Every team member has already decided not to let the disaster short-circuit their commitment to future mission trips.
“It’s all about being obedient to that still, small voice, that call from God. At T.J.’s memorial service we discussed his legacy and his encouraging others to be true to their calling. Those of us who survived want our legacy to be one of trusting God in all things, of going forward in obedience to his call.”
The team returned as scheduled, including T.J.’s widow, Carol.
“I was so glad I could come back at the regular time and I didn’t have to be alone,” she said. Her three children, ages 24, 21, and 17, were glad she returned to Atlanta.
“It’s been difficult, but the Lord’s good. He’s the God of all comfort. I just don’t want this to discourage people from going or letting their children go on mission trips,” she said. “[T.J.’s death] could have happened on the interstate. He would have said this was better, to go while serving his Lord.”
That same spirit is showing itself in other team members and in her youngest son, who will be spending six weeks in Peru this summer.
“He wants to go and I want him to go,” Lathe said. “I like what Jim Elliot said, ‘Only one life to live will soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.'”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: IN LIGHTER MOMENTS and LIFE’S UNEXPECTED TURNS.