Tennessee authorities released the names Thursday of the victims of a fatal bus wreck that killed eight people, including six from a Statesville church.
The dead included some of the oldest members of Front Street Baptist Church – a Sunday school teacher who read to students at a nearby school, an engineer who paid for wells to be dug in Peruvian villages, and a couple who maintained commercial driver’s licenses so they could drive church members on bus trips.
The members of the Young at Heart Seniors Ministry were returning from the 17th Annual Fall Jubilee when the bus’s left tire failed 40 miles east of Knoxville on Wednesday. The bus, with its driver and 17 passengers, careened across a median, causing a fiery crash with other vehicles that left eight people dead and 12 still hospitalized Thursday.
Among the dead from Front Street Baptist: 95-year-old Cloyce Matheny, 69-year-old Brenda Smith, 62-year-old Marsha McLelland, 73-year-old John Wright, and Randy Morrison and his wife Barbara, both 66. Wright was from Mocksville. The others were from Statesville.
Troopers say Randy Morrison was behind the wheel when the crash happened. He shared driving duties with his wife, Barbara, and with Wright. Each had valid commercial driver’s licenses, according to the N.C. Department of Transportation.
On Thursday, it was still unclear whether authorities had deemed the bus safe to operate. Marissa Padilla, a spokeswoman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates buses like the one involved in the crash, said the investigation is ongoing.
A spokeswoman for the National Transportation Safety Board told NBC News that the government agency isn’t helping with the crash investigation because of the federal government shutdown.
The bus, which was owned by the church, was required by the federal government to undergo annual inspections, which would include the tires as well as the steering mechanism, brakes and emergency equipment.
The investigation into the crash will also look into the safety record of the bus and driver, said Sgt. Bill Miller, with the Tennessee Highway Patrol. Miller said a reconstruction team will try to determine how fast the bus was traveling. The speed limit on that stretch of Interstate 40 is 70 mph.
In order to maintain their commercial licenses, the Morrisons and Wright had to be able to demonstrate knowledge of buses – including how to inspect the bus before a trip and how to respond if a tire blows out, according to Steve Abbott, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Transportation.
Miller said a fast-moving bus with a blown tire would be hard to steer.
“We’re talking a 40,000-pound vehicle,” Miller said. “… It’s extremely, extremely difficult to maintain control of that vehicle.”
Miller said authorities have collected evidence from the scene but still want to interview witnesses and get more information about the church-owned bus.
He called it the worst wreck he’s seen in 17 years as a trooper.
The crash happened around 2 p.m. Wednesday about 40 miles east of Knoxville, said Dalya Qualls, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Safety.
The bus was headed east in the left lane when its left-front tire “failed,” Miller said. “We’re not going so far as to say it was a blowout,” the trooper said.
The bus went into the median and through a cable barrier, clipped a Chevrolet Tahoe SUV, then slammed into an 18-wheeler, both of which were traveling westbound in the right, or “slow,” lane, Miller said.
The tractor-trailer burst into flames, Qualls said. The bus overturned, shattering windows and crumpling sheet metal. Aerial photographs from the scene showed pieces of vehicles strewn across long sections of the highway.
The cab of the tractor-trailer was incinerated by the ensuing fire, sending a column of black smoke into the air. Burned trees and a charred, broken branch could still be seen near the scene of the wreck a day later. Miller said some of the victims were burned.
Thursday morning, Rick Cruz, a pastor at Front Street Baptist, told reporters in Statesville, “We are thankful for all the prayers and support that we are receiving. There has been a tremendous outpouring of love and support from all around the community and beyond.” Staff writers Mark Washburn and April Bethea and the Associated Press contributed .
Wootson: 704-358-5046; Twitter: @CleveWootson