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Statesville church members mourn after bus tragedy

DANDRIDGE, Tenn. (AP) — After the fiery crash of a church bus in Tennessee, Daniel Morrison knew a phone call would be coming.
His parents were among a group of seniors from a North Carolina church who had eagerly awaited their big annual outing, a trip to a three-day festival in Gatlinburg, Tenn., featuring gospel singers and speakers.
But on the way back Wednesday to Statesville in North Carolina, the church bus carrying the members blew a tire, veered across a highway median and crashed into a sport utility vehicle and tractor-trailer, police said.
All told, the wreck on Interstate 40 in northeastern Tennessee killed eight people, leaving the bus on its side next to the tractor-trailer, the wreckage extending across two lanes of traffic and partly into the median. Fourteen others were hurt, two in critical condition.
When Morrison was told about the crash, he feared the worst.
Then a pastor at the Front Street Baptist Church called late at night and broke the devastating news: His parents, Randy and Barbara Morrison, both 66 and married for nearly 50 years, were dead.
His father, who had once worked for a trucking company and his mother, once a school teacher, were gone.
“I’m still processing it,” said Daniel Morrison, one of the couple’s five children, pausing to shake his head. He said both had looked forward to the trip, having devoted so much to their church.
Morrison said his parents were always there for him — especially after his wife Monica died in December of a brain aneurysm. His parents stayed long hours at his house, helping him raise his 2-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter.
“You expect things to happen — you don’t expect them to happen in one year,” he said. “I know the Lord has a reason for everything, but I don’t know what it is yet.”
The Tennessee Highway Patrol on Thursday afternoon identified seven of the eight people killed.
Six of the dead were members of the Statesville church, including Randy Morrison, who police said was driving the bus, and his wife, Barbara.
Other victims from the church are 95-year-old Cloyce Matheny, 69-year-old Brenda Smith, 62-year-old Marsha McLelland and 73-year-old John Wright. All were from Statesville except Wright, who was from Mocksville.
The Highway Patrol says the bus, once the tire ruptured, crossed the median into oncoming traffic. The tractor-trailer caught fire.
One person in the sport utility vehicle, Trent Roberts, 24, of Knoxville, was killed.
The driver of the tractor-trailer also was killed but has not yet been identified.
And the partial government shutdown has affected the investigation.
The National Transportation Safety Board isn’t sending investigators to Tennessee to probe the deadly crash — even though it’s the type of accident the agency would typically look into. Nearly all of the board’s 400 employees have been furloughed because of the shutdown, including accident investigators.
Jerry Wright is the brother of victim John Wright, who had been a member of the church for 50 years and had been a deacon. He said he heard the sad news from his nephew on Thursday morning. His brother’s wife, 62-year-old Beverly Wright, was seriously hurt.
“My brother was a good man. Everybody loved him,” Wright said.
Standing in his carport, Wright reflected on his brother’s life, which revolved around faith and family. The brothers were close. Growing up in rural North Carolina, they played baseball and other sports. His brother was a good athlete — playing shortstop on his high school team — and he stayed active throughout his life, averaging 175 a game in a senior bowling league, Wright said.
“It’s sort of a bad dream and when you wake up, you find out it’s true,” he said.
The tight-knit group of seniors was on its annual road trip, following a tradition for members of the Young at Heart ministry to attend the Fall Jubilee in Gatlinburg. The event’s website described the gathering as “three days of singing, laughing and preaching” for “mature and senior believers.”
The church’s Young at Heart ministry reaches out to older members of the congregation. They take road trips together and sing in the senior choir.
Wright said he had not talked to his brother for a while, but called him Wednesday because Beverly Wright is a nurse and Jerry Wright’s granddaughter was sick. They talked for a little bit, and during the conversation, John Wright told his brother that the bus had missed a turn and was turning around.
“I told him, ‘I’d see you.”’ the last words he spoke with his brother.
Wright had a gut feeling his brother was dead because he tried to call him on his cellphone later Wednesday and it kept ringing.
“A little bit of time,” he said about trying to deal with the loss. “We’ll make it somehow.”
Inside the Statesville church on Wednesday evening, people cried and hugged each other. One woman whispered, “It’s going to be all right” while hugging another woman. Police cordoned off the church to prevent reporters from talking to those inside.
“There was a very long night for all of us,” Front Street Baptist associate pastor Rick Cruz said Thursday morning. But he said the church has received a tremendous outpouring of love from the community.
“We know God is in control and is able to heal,” he said.
What caused the tire to blow out isn’t yet known.
The bus itself didn’t actually catch on fire, but there was some “heat exposure,” Jefferson County Emergency Management Director Brad Phillips said. Emergency responders were able to remove people rapidly away from the flames and other Good Samaritans provided assistance.
The SUV was about 50 yards away from the tractor-trailer. It was still upright, but the back half had been ripped away.
The injured were taken to the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville.

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