By Steve Megargee and Travis Loller
The Associated Press
DANDRIDGE, Tenn. — A bus taking a church group home to North Carolina blew a tire, veered across a highway median and crashed into a sport utility vehicle and tractor-trailer Wednesday in a fiery wreck that killed eight people, authorities said.
Fourteen other people were hurt in the accident in northeastern Tennessee, including two who were in critical condition. The bus was carrying members of the Front Street Baptist Church in Statesville, N.C., which is about 140 miles east of the crash site.
The group of seniors, known as Young at Heart, had been to the 17th annual Fall Jubilee in Gatlinburg, Tenn., an event featuring gospel singers and speakers. Its website described the gathering as “three days of singing, laughing and preaching” for “mature and senior believers.”
Inside the Statesville church, people were crying and hugging each other. One woman whispered “It’s going to be all right” while hugging another woman. A service was scheduled for Wednesday night.
George Stadfeld, who has been a member of the church for eight years, said he knew everyone on the bus.
“We’re all shaken,” he said. “As bad as it is, they’re all Christians and I know where they’re at. I’ll join them later.”
Dionne Stutts, wife of Front Street Baptist senior pastor Tim Stutts, said her husband and another pastor from the church were en route to the wreck site.
“They had been there and they were on their way home today,” she said. “We are devastated and just ask for the people to be praying.”
Authorities said the bus crossed the median and the cable barriers that divide the interstate about 2 p.m., clipped the oncoming SUV and slammed into the tractor-trailer, which burst into flames.
Several hours after the crash, clouds of smoke still rose from the tractor-trailer and tree branches that lined the highway were charred.
The bus was on its side next to the tractor-trailer, lying across two lanes of traffic and extending partially into the median.
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 who were alive rapidly to get them 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 completely ripped off.
The interstate was completely shut down in both directions, and the scene was eerily quiet, despite the presence of many emergency workers.
“This is an extremely horrific event,” Tennessee Highway Patrol spokesman Sgt. Bill Miller said at an evening news conference.