- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2007

ATLANTA (AP) — A charter bus carrying a college baseball team from Ohio plunged off a highway ramp early Friday and slammed into the pavement below, killing six people, injuring 29 and scattering sports equipment across the road, authorities said.

The bus, carrying the team from the close-knit, Mennonite-affiliated Bluffton University, toppled off the Northside Drive bridge onto a pickup truck on Interstate 75 shortly before dawn, police spokesman Joe Cobb said.

“It looked to me like a big slab of concrete falling down,” said 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 impact broke his windshield, pushed his truck into the concrete and wrecked the front bumper, but Lloyd wasn’t injured.

Four students, the bus driver and the bus driver’s wife were killed, said police Maj. Calvin Moss.

Nineteen students - three in critical condition - were being treated at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Dr. Leon Haley said. He said all but two students were awake and talking Friday morning, and doctors were checking them for broken bones.

“All things considered, they are pretty calm,” Haley said. “They are very aware of what’s going on.”

Three other injured people were taken to Piedmont Hospital, and seven were taken to Atlanta Medical Center, Haley said. Officials at the three hospitals said 28 of the 29 were college age, and the age of the other injured person could not immediately be determined.

Piedmont hospital spokeswoman Diana Lewis said the team’s coach, James Grandey, 29, was in serious condition and expected to improve.

“This is a profound and tragic day in the life of Bluffton University,” school President James Harder told reporters Friday morning in Ohio.

Classes were canceled. The school called off other sports trips planned during next week’s spring break, Harder said. He said he had no details on the identities of those killed and injured.

“This is deeply impacting all of our students, faculty and staff. We know these people on a first-name basis,” he said. “For now we’re pulling together and supporting each other as best we can.”

On campus, students and residents of the community filled the school’s basketball gym to grieve together and learn more about what had happened. Some wiped away tears as they came in. The university, with about 1,150 students 50 miles south of Toledo, is affiliated with the Mennonite Church USA.

The baseball team had been scheduled to play its first game of the season in Sarasota, Fla., Saturday against Eastern Mennonite College of Harrisonburg, Va., and it had eight more games scheduled in Fort Myers, Fla.

Cobb said the bus was southbound on I-75 when it crashed about 5:30 a.m. The driver may have mistaken an exit ramp for a lane, he said. It was dark at the time, but the weather was clear.

When the bus went off the bridge and landed on its side in the southbound lanes of the interstate.

The National Transportation Safety Board was called in to investigate.

Five fire trucks were at the scene as firefighters pulled crash victims through the roof of the bus. Baseball equipment bags littered the scene after the crash, and luggage spilled from the vehicle when it was set right side up.

There was blood on the overpass near where the bus went over.

When the bus was righted, it was clear that all the windows on the driver’s side had been shattered, and there was considerable damage on the front of bus and on the roof above driver’s seat.

Calls Friday to the charter company, Executive Coach Luxury Travel Inc. of Ottawa, Ohio, were not immediately returned. Harder said the school had used the company in the past.

Steve Rogers, a Bluffton University assistant football coach, said he was working out in the weight room with members of the football team around 6 a.m. when they saw news of the bus crash on television. When they saw the markings on the bus, “that’s when reality hit everybody,” he said.

“Nobody knew what to say or what to feel,” he said.

His players started calling friends on the baseball team, trying to reach some by cell phone. “It hits home harder than it would if it had happened at a bigger school. Everybody knows each other,” he said.

Matt Ferguson, a freshman on the baseball team from Pleasant Hill, Ohio, said most of the freshman position players stayed behind.

“We were bummed out we didn’t get to go. Now, we don’t know what to think,” he said.

Ferguson said players had been hearing from those on the bus, mostly calling to say they were all right, he said. He’d heard many of the teammates on the bus were sleeping when the crash occurred.

“They didn’t see it coming,” Ferguson said.

The team is close-knit, he said. “It’s one huge family. We spend all day together. We go to classes together. We do everything together.”

At a chapel service the night before, students a had offered a prayer for their sports teams and other students to travel safely over spring break, said Barrington, a junior from Brooklyn Heights, Ohio.

“Sometimes you take that stuff for granted,” she said.

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