updated 4/27/2006 9:37:05 AM ET 2006-04-27T13:37:05

A week of celebrations turned to mourning on a university campus Thursday after a highway crash killed five students and staff as they headed home after setting up for a scholarship banquet.

“We’re living a nightmare,” said Jim Garringer, spokesman for Taylor University, a small evangelical Christian school northeast of Indianapolis.

Four of the victims were students, ages 18 to 22, and the fifth was an employee they worked within the university’s dining services. Four others who had been in the van were hospitalized, including a 22-year-old student listed in critical condition Thursday morning.

The van was about 10 miles north of Taylor’s Upland campus Wednesday night when it was hit by a tractor-trailer that crashed through a median Interstate 69.

As word of the deaths spread across the campus of 1,900 students, friends and classmates gathered in the campus chapel to pray. Another service was planned for Thursday morning, and classes were canceled for the day, Garringer said.

Earlier tragedy
The deadly crash was Indiana’s second college tragedy in a week.

Last Thursday, five Indiana University music school students died when their plane crashed in fog outside Bloomington as they were returning from a concert rehearsal in West Lafayette. A memorial service was held Wednesday in Bloomington. A preliminary investigation report, released Wednesday, found no mechanical problems with the plane.

At Taylor University, 100 miles northwest of Bloomington, students sobbed and hugged each other outside the chapel.

'Horrific' crash
Investigators were trying to determine why the semi crashed through the median about 8 p.m., peeling open the side of the van. The truck driver, identified by police as Robert F. Spencer, 27, of Canton, Mich., was hospitalized in fair condition Thursday.

“It was one of the most horrific crashes I’ve ever seen,” said Indiana State Police Sgt. Rod Russell.

The students and staff had been in Fort Wayne preparing for a scholarship banquet that was to be part of new school President Eugene Habecker’s inauguration festivities planned for the weekend.

Garringer said he did not yet know whether the events would continue as planned.

“I was hoping that I woke up this morning and was dreaming all this,” Garringer said Thursday. “There’s just that sense that this can’t have happened.”

Another Taylor van was following the one involved in the crash, but it had pulled off the highway to refuel and came up on the accident scene soon after it happened, Garringer said.

Police identified the victims as Elizabeth A. Smith, 22, of Mount Zion, Ill.; Bradley J. Larson, 22, of Elm Grove, Wis.; Whitney E. Cerak, 18, of Gaylord, Mich.; Laurel E. Erb, 20, of St. Charles, Ill.; and Taylor University employee Monica Felver, 53, of Hartford City.

The university employee driving the van, Vickie L. Rhodes, 54, of Fairmount; employees Connie Magers, 50, of Gas City, and Michele M. Miller, 43, of Marion; and student Laura J. Vanryn, 22, of Caledonia, Mich., were hospitalized. Vanryn was in critical condition after being airlifted to Parkview Hospital in Fort Wayne.

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