Shared from the 3/30/2017 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Crash kills church bus driver, 12 riders

Victims, all senior citizens, were headed home from Texas Hill Country camp retreat

Zeke MacCormack / San Antonio Express-News

Uvalde County authorities investigate a collision that killed 13 people on a church bus near Garner State Park on Wednesday.

NEW BRAUNFELS — The fellowship at the senior retreat at Alto Frio Baptist Camp and Conference Center had been rewarding.

The meals were good. The testimonies touched everyone. The weather of the scenic Texas Hill Country was fantastic.

Then came time to leave Wednesday afternoon, and most of the 65 members of the choir group from First Baptist Church of New Braunfels got into their various cars and began the 130-mile trek back home, recounted Caroline Deavors, who was on the retreat.

But not everyone had a car, she said, so 14 church members got onto the church’s small bus, driven by semi-retired middle school math teacher Murray Barrett.

Deavors had a car and had a passenger with her.

“They were right behind us,” Deavors said. “They left right after we did.”

As she and her passenger headed south on U.S. 83, they saw a string of ambulances go by but didn’t think much about it.

It wasn’t until she got home that she learned about the tragedy that had taken place behind her: Barrett and 12 bus passengers were killed when authorities said the driver of a Dodge pickup crossed the center line and hit the bus head-on about 30 miles north of Uvalde.

The driver of the truck was taken to University Hospital; he was in stable condition Wednesday night, said Lt. Johnny Hernandez, Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman. The driver’s name was not released. The lone surviving church member, who was taken by air to San Antonio Military Medical Center, was in critical condition, Hernandez said.

Hernandez said the 2004 bus was southbound on U.S. 83 and the 2007 Dodge dually truck was northbound on the highway when they collided at 12:23 p.m. The driver of the Dodge was alone in his vehicle.

No possible cause

The roads in the vicinity of Garner State Park, which is near the Alto Frio facility, are some of the riskiest in the state.

“Those are very dangerous roads,” Deavors said. “They’re just curves and curves and curves. There would be places where the speed limit on the highway was 30 mph.”

At a briefing near the crash site Wednesday night, DPS Sgt. Orlando Moreno declined to speculate on possible causes of the crash, which occurred in a curve of the road where the speed limit is 65 mph.

“For reasons unknown, the truck veered into the southbound land and struck the bus head-on,” Moreno said. “Give the investigators time to look at everything and then we’ll know exactly what happened.”

Moreno said officials from the National Transportation Safety Board were expected to assist in the investigation of the collision, which he said was unlike any he’s had to handle.

“We’re used to working fatal crash scenes, but it’s the first time we’ve seen something like this happen with so many confirmed fatalities,” he said. “Our guys are holding up really well and trying to do the job they’ve got to do.”

As for bus accidents, it appears to have been one of the deadliest in recent Texas history. A little less than a year ago, a charter bus rolled over and crashed in May on a highway in south Texas, killing eight people. The driver of the bus reportedly lost control of the vehicle on Highway 83 in Webb County near the Mexican border.

An even deadlier crash occurred in September 1989 when 21 students from Mission High School and Junior High School were killed after a Dr Pepper truck slammed into a school bus.

More than 10 DPS officers were still working at the accident scene as the sun set. Volunteer firefighters from Reagan Wells and Concan also responded to the crash.

In New Braunfels, congregation members gathered at the church, reaching out to each other in their grief.

“Shock, just shock,” said Nancy Lacey, a 10-year resident of New Braunfels, as she arrived at the church Wednesday evening. “You see things like this on the news. Now it’s here.”

From across the street, about three dozen members of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church held hands and walked to the First Baptist sanctuary to lend support.

Amity Dohoney, 21, said she had known the bus driver since her pre-teen years. He taught her seventh- and eighth-grade math, and they remained close through the church.

“He was always such an upbeat person,” she said. “He loved people. He’d do anything to help them.”

Somber church members passed by as Dohoney and Deavors spoke. Nearby, little children oblivious to the adults were happily running around the playground.

The normal Wednesday night service had been canceled, but many members didn’t hear about that until they arrived. They were joined in the church by others, who were drawn to the church in the wake of the tragedy.

“It’s very heart-breaking,” Deavors said. “The people who were on the bus … I knew them all.”

Pastor Brad McLean said the bus passengers were all seniors.

“We just want to be, obviously, thoughtful of the families,” McLean said. “We are just trying to work through this.”

‘Keep praying’

News of the crash drew condolences from Gov. Greg Abbott.

In a statement, Abbott said he and his wife, Cecilia, extend their “deepest condolences to the victims and the families of those involved in today’s tragic event.” He said they are “saddened by the loss of life and our hearts go out to all those affected.”

The governor added that he and his wife “thank the first responders working on the scene” and “ask that all Texans join us in offering their thoughts and prayers.”

Members of the congregation at the church were leaning on each other and their faith.

“We know that everyone on that bus knew the Lord and we’ll see them again,” Lacey said, adding that the best thing people can do is “keep praying.”

“There is power in prayer,” she said. “When two people gather, He’s there.”

Chris Lykins, Jacob Beltran and Kelsey Bradshaw of the Express-News, Brooke Lewis of the Chronicle and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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