ATLANTA – A small college in Ohio was thrown into mourning Friday after a bus carrying the baseball team tumbled over the side of a highway overpass and slammed onto the pavement 30 feet below, killing four students, the driver and his wife.
The team from the close-knit, Mennonite-affiliated Bluffton University was making its annual spring training trip to Florida before daybreak when the charter bus crashed, scattering bags of baseball equipment across the road and splattering blood on the overpass. Some of the athletes climbed out the roof escape hatch, dazed and bloody.
"I just looked out and saw the road coming up at me. I remember the catcher tapping me on the head, telling me to get out because there was gas all over," said A.J. Ramthun, an 18-year-old second-baseman from Springfield, Ohio, who was asleep in a window seat and suffered a broken collarbone and cuts on his face from broken glass. "I heard some guys crying, `I'm stuck! I'm stuck!"'
Investigators said the driver apparently mistook an exit ramp for a lane and went into the curve at full speed. It was dark at the time, but the weather was clear.
On the 1,150-student campus in Bluffton, about 50 miles south of Toledo, students and community residents — some wiping away tears — filled the gymnasium to grieve and learn more about what happened. When news of the crash appeared on television, students desperately tried to reach some of the athletes on their cell phones.
Sophomore Courtney Minnich said that at a college as small as Bluffton, "even if you didn't know everybody, it will hurt, because you've seen them on campus."
Megan Barker, a sophomore, said she knew just about everyone on the team and described them as "a fun-loving group of guys." She added: "They live as a family."
Classes were canceled, along with other sports trips that had been scheduled during next week's spring break. A candlelight vigil was held Friday evening. Airlines also arranged for the players' parents to fly to Atlanta for free.
Cindy Perkins, of Convoy, said she looked forward to an emotional reunion with her son, Matt, who was badly bruised.
"That's probably going to be the tough part: just going through, reliving what happened and knowing that some of the friends he had, he won't be in contact with them anymore," she said.
Beyond the six killed, 28 players and their coach, James Grandey, 29, were taken to the hospital. He and six players were reported in serious or critical condition; many of the rest were soon released. The players' injuries included broken bones, cuts and bruises.
By Friday night, 15 of the 19 players admitted to Grady Memorial Hospital had been discharged, said hospital spokeswoman Denise Simpson.
The bus had set out from Ohio the evening before and had traveled all night long before it went off the road and landed on its side about at about 5:30 a.m. on Interstate 75. Two vehicles under the overpass were struck by the bus, but their drivers were not hurt.
"It looked to me like a big slab of concrete falling down," said pickup-truck driver Danny Lloyd, 57, of Frostburg, Md. "I didn't recognize it was a bus. I think when I saw the thing coming, I think I closed my eyes and stepped on the gas."
The National Transportation Safety Board was called in to investigate.
Investigators said there were no skid marks, and they hoped to tap into the bus' computer system for clues. The driver had boarded the bus with his wife less than an hour before the wreck, relieving another driving team, authorities said.
It was not immediately known if the bus had seat belts. Motorcoaches like the one involved typically do not have seat belts in the passenger section. Calls to the charter company, Executive Coach Luxury Travel Inc. of Ottawa, Ohio, were not immediately returned.
The university identified the victims as sophomores David Betts and Tyler Williams; freshmen Scott Harmon and Cody Holp; bus driver Jerome Niemeyer; and his wife, Jean Niemeyer, all of them from Ohio.
"This is deeply impacting all of our students, faculty and staff. We know these people on a first-name basis," said James Harder, the school's president. "For now we're pulling together and supporting each other as best we can."
The baseball team had been scheduled to play its first spring-training game of the season in Sarasota, Fla., on Saturday and had eight more games scheduled in Fort Myers, Fla.
The university is affiliated with the Mennonite Church USA. About one-fifth of the students are Mennonite, and the school stresses spirituality, but it is open to all religious backgrounds.
The church emphasizes pacifism and nonviolence. But unlike adherents of more conservative Mennonite denominations and the Amish, members wear modern clothing and use electricity. Smoking and drinking are banned on campus.
At a campus chapel service the night before the bus trip, students had prayed for safe travel for their sports teams and other students during spring break.
"Sometimes you take that stuff for granted," said Katie Barrington, a junior from Brooklyn Heights, Ohio.
Bluffton football players were working out in the weight room when they saw news of the crash on TV and recognized the logo on the bus as the company that all the school's sports teams have used, assistant football coach Steve Rogers said.
"That's when reality hit everybody," he said. "Everybody was in shock. Nobody knew what to say or what to feel." He added: "It hits home harder than it would if it had happened at a bigger school. Everybody knows each other."
Matt Ferguson, a freshman baseball player from Pleasant Hill, Ohio, said most of the freshmen had stayed behind.
"We were bummed out we didn't get to go," he said. "Now, we don't know what to think."