BLUFFTON, Ohio – At a U.S. university smaller than some high schools, the deaths of four baseball players in a bus crash has left the entire campus feeling a profound sense of loss.
Football players from Bluffton University — where many athletes live in the same dormitory — froze when they heard during their morning workout that the bus carrying the school's baseball team had gone off a highway overpass in Atlanta, Georgia, and fell 30 feet to the interstate below early Friday.
"It hits home harder than it would if it had happened at a bigger school," said Steve Rogers, an assistant football coach at the Mennonite-affiliated university of 1,155 students.
On the Bluffton campus, candles flickered inside the gymnasium Friday evening as about 500 people — mostly students and residents of the small town — gathered for a vigil. The service began with several quiet moments as people reflected on the accident and cried.
"Lord, we light these candles as a community of faith, a community that grieves," said Eric Fulcomer, dean of students. At the center of the gym floor, a baseball and glove sat on a table surrounded by candles.
The accident killed freshman Scott Harmon and sophomore Tyler Williams, both from Lima, Ohio; sophomore David Betts, from Bryan, and freshman Cody Holp, from Arcanum. The bus driver and his wife, Jerome and Jean Niemeyer, also died in the crash.
Coach James Grandey and 28 players were hospitalized with injuries. Many were soon released, but the 29-year-old coach and six players were reported in serious or critical condition.
The baseball team's annual spring trip to Florida was a highlight of the season, a chance to escape the dreary cold and snow and play ball in the sun. Players were not guaranteed a spot on the bus, especially freshmen.
"When baseball season comes around, everyone wants to know 'Did you make the bus?'" said Rustin Pickett, a senior and former player.
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.
"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, 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!'"
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash, and the results could be released in a year, board member Kitty Higgins said.
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 driver, authorities said.
Both were wearing seat belts, Higgins said, but it was not known if any of the passengers were. Motorcoaches such as 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 company posted a message on its Web site saying it was deeply saddened by the crash and would cooperate with investigators.
The baseball team had been scheduled to play its first spring-training game of the season in Sarasota, Florida, on Saturday and had eight more games scheduled in Fort Myers, Florida.
Bluffton University, about 50 miles south of Toledo, 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.