JEFFERSON COUNTY, TN - Six people from a Statesville church were among eight killed in a crash on Interstate 40 in Tennessee on Wednesday.
Officials released the names of the victims that were from Front Street Baptist Church Thursday afternoon: Cloyce Matheny, 95, Marsha McLelland, 62, Barbara Morrison, 66, Randy Morrison, 66, Brenda Smith, 69 and John Wright, 73.
Eyewitness News learned through family members Thursday morning Randolph and Barbara Morrison were killed in the accident. A Statesville man also told Eyewitness News that his brother, John Wright, was killed in the crash.
The devastating crash involving a passenger bus, a sport utility vehicle and a tractor-trailer in Jefferson County closed I-40 for about 14 hours.
The wife of the pastor confirmed to Channel 9 that the bus that crashed was from Front Street Baptist Church. The pastor headed to the scene Wednesday evening.
The bus, which belonged to the church, was carrying senior adult church members.
Tennessee authorities said a total of eight people were killed in the crash. The Tennessee Highway Patrol said six victims were from the bus, one from the tractor-trailer and one from the SUV, which was carrying three people.
Fourteen patients injured in the crash were all elderly and transported to University of Tennessee Medical Center in Tennessee. As of Thursday morning, two were in critical condition, seven in serious condition and five in stable condition.
“We hope and pray that there will be no more (fatalities), and our thoughts and prayers do go out to their families and to those that are injured,” said Sgt. Bill Miller of the Highway Patrol.
Miller said a total of 22 people were involved in the crash, with 18 on the bus including the driver. There were no minors involved in the crash, officials said.
The Highway Patrol said the crash occurred around 2 p.m. when, according to preliminary crash reports, the bus’s left front tire failed or malfunctioned. The bus ran off the road, plowed through a cable guard rail in the median at a high rate of speed, clipped an SUV and struck a tractor-trailer on its left side.
The tractor-trailer immediately caught fire and the bus overturned. The rear half of the SUV was ripped off.
Miller said the crash information is still very preliminary, and investigators are planning to do a reconstruction to try to determine the speeds of all the vehicles involved. He said the bus was not overloaded, and it’s unlikely that investigators will be able to determine the weight of the tractor-trailer, which was carrying paper products, because so much of it burned.
Miller said it’s still too early to determine whether any charges will be filed. He said investigators have a number of interviews to conduct with survivors and witnesses. He said they also plan to get the service records on the bus from the church. The investigation is expected to take several days.
Miller said he can’t comment on the background of the bus driver at this time because investigators are still trying to determine who was driving.
Two of the Morrisons’ five children, Ronnie Morrison and Rebecca Johnson, spoke to Eyewitness News before they went into the hospital to meet with church members Thursday. They said they believe their father, Randolph Morrison, was driving at the time of the crash, as he frequently drove the bus.
Morrison said both his parents had commercial drivers’ licenses. Barbara Morrison drove a school bus for Iredell County Schools for about 30 years. Randolph Morrison had been a mechanic and worked on tractor-trailers his whole life.
Ronnie Morrison said his father was a good bus driver and would have done anything he could to prevent the crash.
“You get bus drivers that may not know what they are doing. Daddy’s been doing it all his life,” he said. “He never worried for himself, I’m sure. It was always other people.”
The brother and sister said the Morrisons, both 66, lived across the street from the church and were very involved members of the congregation. They said the pair would do anything for anyone.
They are asking for people to continue to pray for the rest of the church family struggling to deal with the accident.
Jerry Wright said Thursday his 73-year-old brother, John Wright, died in the wreck. Wright said his sister-in-law, Beverly Wright, was seriously injured.
He said his brother was sitting with his wife when the accident occurred; he had initially believed his brother may have been driving the bus but said Thursday he was a passenger along with his wife.
Wright called his brother a good man who had been a member of Front Street Baptist Church for 50 years and had been a deacon. He said the death was like a dream where you wake up and discover it is true.
Emergency officials recall horrific crash scene
A Tennessee state trooper who responded to the accident said, "In my 17 years (as a trooper), this is probably the most serious incident I’ve ever been a part of."
Emergency crews were on the scene within five minutes of the initial calls to 911 regarding the crash. More than 20 agencies ended up working the accident, including firefighters, troopers and Emergency Medical Services personnel from surrounding counties who responded to care for the injured.
“It was a tragic day yesterday, and our thoughts and prayers go out to all of the victims and their families,” said Brad Phillips, director of Emergency Management for Jefferson County.
Phillips said while everyone’s thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families first and foremost, he hopes that people will also pray for the good Samaritans and first responders.
“It was a very horrific scene and that does take a toll on our first responders,” he said.
He said several good Samaritans saw the crash and stopped to comfort the victims while they waited for medical care.
Miller said the crash was so terrible that it could be impossible to determine who was wearing seat belts. The bus was equipped with seat belts.
Several people were also trapped in the bus in the crash and had to be extricated.
The church members were on their way home from an event called the Fall Jubilee in Gatlinburg, which ran from Monday to Wednesday.
WATE-TV received a statement from the Jubilee Conferences where the church members were coming from.
The statement read, “Our thoughts are with our friends at Front Street Baptist Church in their tragic loss.”
Loss affects school children
The impact of the accident is being felt not just by members of the church, but also a number of people around the Statesville area.
The church has a group called the Good News Club that has adopted N.B. Mills Elementary School. Some of the senior members of the church provide one-on-one tutoring, lunch buddying and support to the students.
Read more on how the children are dealing with the loss here.
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