By MITCH WEISS and KRISTIN M. HALL Associated Press
STATESVILLE, N.C. (AP) – Daniel Morrison said his parents were always there for him – especially after his wife Monica died in December of a brain aneurysm. They stayed long hours at his home in North Carolina’s Piedmont region, helping him raise his 2-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter.
Now Morrison is processing more devastating news. He learned Wednesday his parents were among eight people killed when a church bus carrying members blew a tire, veered across a Tennessee highway median and crashed into a sport utility vehicle and a tractor-trailer.
His father, who had once worked for a trucking company and his mother, once a school teacher, were gone. Randy and Barbara Morrison were both 66 and had been married for nearly 50 years.
“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 bus was carrying a group of seniors from a Statesville, N.C., church back home from their big annual outing – a trip to a three-day festival in Gatlinburg, Tenn., featuring gospel singers and speakers.
The collision occurred Wednesday on Interstate 40 in northeastern Tennessee. It left 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.
The Tennessee Highway Patrol on Thursday afternoon identified seven of the eight people killed.
Six of the dead were members of the Front Street Baptist Church in Statesville, including Randy Morrison, who police said was driving the bus, and his wife, Barbara.
Other victims from the church were 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, from nearby Mocksville, N.C.
The Tennessee Highway Patrol said the bus, once the tire ruptured, cross the median into oncoming traffic. The tractor-trailer caught fire.
One person in the sport utility vehicle, Trent Roberts, 24, of Knoxville, Tenn., 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 wasn’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.
Statesville is a small city located at the juncture of Interstates 40 and 77, and about 30 miles north of Charlotte.
When Daniel Morrison first heard about the fiery bus crash, he braced for the worst. For hours after the crash, Daniel Morrison frantically scrambled to find out information about his parents. Were they injured? If so, how bad?
Then a pastor at the Front Street Baptist Church called and broke the devastating news.
“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.
The night before the trip, Randy Morrison asked his neighbor Kenneth Snead to help clean the bus. Morrison lived across the street from the church and was always working on the bus, Snead said.
When Snead was done cleaning, Morrison asked for one more favor: Could he take care of Morrison’s three dogs while he was away?
“That was no problem,” said Snead, who has lived next to Morrison for 32 years.
He said Morrison mowed the lawn for about 20 elderly people at church. “He did it for free,” said Snead, looking at the Morrisons’ tiny house. Their car was parked in the driveway, the dogs barking in the backyard.
He recalled that the couple would leave their house every Sunday morning, holding hands as they walked 50 yards to church. “You couldn’t find nicer people. They were always trying to help people,” he said.
Daniel Morrison said his parents always looked out for others.
“They didn’t care about nice cars or fancy homes,” he said. “They never did anything for themselves. They gave their time and money to their grandchildren and their church.”
Other victims’ families said they were having a difficult time.
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. Jerry Wright said he heard the sad news from his nephew 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 Jerry Wright’s granddaughter was sick and Beverly Wright is a nurse. The brothers talked for a little bit, and during the conversation, John Wright told his brother the bus had missed a turn and was turning around.
“I told him, `I’d see you,”‘ he told 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.”
People in this community of nearly 25,000 have gathered at the church, offering condolences and whispering prayers. They have cried and hugged each other. Police have 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.
Weiss reported from Statesville, N.C. Associated Press writer Travis Loller contributed to this report from Nashville, Tenn.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)