DANDRIDGE, Tenn. – It could take a couple of days to identify some of the eight people killed in a fiery bus crash in Tennessee because some of the victims were so badly burned, the highway patrol said Thursday.
Sgt. Bill Miller said said a forensic team expected to use dental records to identify some victims.
A North Carolina church bus blew a tire while traveling home on Interstate 40 on Wednesday, veered across a highway median and crashed into a sport utility vehicle and tractor-trailer. Fourteen people were injured in the crash.
It was still unclear Thursday morning who had been driving the bus, Miller said, but investigators planned to look into the driver and the vehicle's safety records.
One of the dead was identified as 73-year-old John Wright, said his brother Jerry Wright. Jerry Wright said his nephew called him Thursday morning to tell him his brother was dead; his brother's wife was seriously hurt in the crash. He said his brother was sitting with his wife when the accident occurred; he had initially believed his brother may have been driving the bus but said Thursday he was a passenger along with his wife.
He said his brother had been a member of the church for 50 years and had been a deacon.
"My brother was a good man. Everybody loved him," Wright said.
A tight-knit group of seniors at the church was on its annual road trip, following a tradition for members of the Young at Heart Ministry to attend the Fall Jubilee in Gatlinburg, Tenn., which features gospel singers and speakers. The event's website described the gathering as "three days of singing, laughing and preaching" for "mature and senior believers."
But on the way back to Statesville, N.C., on Wednesday, the bus carrying the Front Street Baptist Church group blew a tire, veered across a highway median and crashed into a sport utility vehicle and tractor-trailer.
Fourteen other people were hurt in the accident in northeastern Tennessee, including two who were in critical condition.
Inside the Statesville church on Wednesday evening, people were crying and hugging each other. One woman whispered, "It's going to be all right" while hugging another woman. Police cordoned off the church to prevent reporters from talking to those who attended.
"There was a very long night for all of us," Front Street Baptist associate pastor Rick Cruz said Thursday morning.
The church has received a tremendous outpouring of love from the community, Cruz said.
"We know God is in control and is able to heal," he said.
George Stadtfeld, who has been a member of the church for eight years, said Wednesday he knew everyone on the bus. He said his wife, Elaine, had been on the trip but didn't travel on the bus. He said she called him crying.
"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."
The church's Young at Heart Ministry reaches out to older members of the congregation. They go on road trips together and sing in the senior choir. The enjoy each other's company, Stadtfeld said.
"They were all friends," he said.
The wreck left the bus on its side next to the tractor-trailer, lying across two lanes of traffic and extending partially into the median. It was not yet known what caused the tire to blow out.
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 injured were taken to the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville. Late Wednesday, center spokesman Jim Ragonese said 14 people from the crash were being treated at the hospital. He said two were in critical condition, seven in serious condition, and five in stable condition.
State Department of Safety and Homeland Security spokeswoman Dalya Qualls said in an email 18 people were on the bus, six of whom were killed. One person among the three in the SUV was killed, and the tractor-trailer driver also died.
Qualls said Thursday that all lanes of the interstate had reopened by 5:15 a.m.
Brady Johnson, superintendent of the Iredell County-Statesville City Schools, said a lot of people who work for the school system are church members. Johnson said he knew people on the bus and they were awaiting word on the conditions.
Johnson said the church had adopted N.B. Mills Elementary School, providing volunteers and school supplies for needy children.
Now, the school system is offering a high school auditorium as a site for a memorial.
"It hits the community as a whole when tragedy strikes. The whole community comes together," he said.