The small town of Statesville, N.C., was in mourning Thursday, a day after six members of Front Street Baptist Church were killed and 12 others were injured when their bus overturned on an East Tennessee interstate.
"My prayers are with all of them and my faith is in God, but this is definitely going to be a grieving community, the Rev. Jeff Luxon, the church's former senior care pastor, told The Statesville Record & Landmark.
With Front Street's senior pastor in Tennessee to be with his congregants, Luxon made sure he was at the church after he heard the news.
"I had some great friends on that bus, and I'm sure knew all of them who were members of the church," Luxon said.
The church members on the bus were part of Front Street's Young at Heart group for senior citizens, who were returning from a Christian conference in Gatlinburg, Tenn. The dead ranged in age from 62 to 95.
"I knew probably everybody who was on the bus," said Emmy Miller, a member of the church.
"They would want us to know they are in a better place now," Miller told the Record & Landmark. "We all know God is in charge and that this will make us stronger. That's what Front Street is all about."
Two other people were also killed when the bus' left front tire failed and the driver lost control Wednesday afternoon on Interstate 40 east of Knoxville, Tenn., sending the bus across the median and a cable restraint into oncoming traffic.
The bus struck a sport-utility vehicle and a tractor-trailer, killing one person in each, authorities said.
The Tennessee Highway Patrol released the identities of all but one of the victims Thursday — the driver of the tractor-trailer, who hasn't yet been positively identified.
Killed on the bus were:
- Cloyce Matheny, 95, of Statesville.
- John Wright, 73, of Mocksville.
- Brenda Smith, 69, of Statesville.
- Randy Morrison, 66, of Statesville. Morrison was driving the bus at the time of the crash, the patrol said.
- Barbara Morrison, 66, of Statesville, the driver's wife.
- Marsha Mclelland, 62, of Statesville.
Injured on the bus were:
- Norma J. Hellard, 78, of Statesville.
- Marvin Boyer, 74, of Statesville.
- Thomas L. Smith, 74, of Statesville.
- Benny Elledge, 72, of Statesville.
- Joanna L. Elledge, 70, of Statesville.
- Brenda Jolly, 70, of Statesville.
- Doris Swaim, 68, of Statesville.
- Steven Swaim, 68, of Statesville.
- Sandra Boyer, 67, of Statesville.
- Ed Mclelland, 64, of Statesville, who was married to Marsha Mclelland.
- Wanda Martin, 63, of Statesville.
- Beverly Wright, 62, of Mocksville.
In addition to the driver of the tractor-trailer, Trent Roberts, 24, a rear-seat passenger in the Chevrolet Tahoe struck by the bus, was also killed.
Tim Wacker, 28, a front-seat passenger in the Tahoe, and Jordan D. Payne, 24, the driver, were injured. All are from Knoxville.
Two of the injured had been released by Thursday morning, patrol Sgt. Bill Miller said. Twelve remained at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville, two of them in critical condition.
The investigation will be led by state and local agencies after the National Transportation Safety Board — whose assistance was requested — said it couldn't send any investigators because of the federal government shutdown.
"All of our highway investigators are furloughed," Sharon Bryson, deputy director of communications for the NTSB, told NBC News on Thursday.
"In this particular case, I think it's highly likely that we would have responded to it, but again, with our investigators furloughed, it's impossible to do that," she said.
Miller said the investigation remained in the very early stages, but he was able to confirm that the bus had seatbelts. However, it may never be possible to determine whether the passengers were wearing them because the bus was so extensively damaged, he said.
While the cable restraint system dividing the east- and westbound lanes of I-40 are designed to stop vehicles from crossing the median, it's not strong enough to halt a large bus traveling at full speed, Miller said. Not even a traditional barrier system — even a concrete divider wall — could have done that, he said.
"We're talking a 40,000-pound vehicle," he said.
All lanes of I-40 were reopened Thursday morning after the three vehicles involved in the wreck were removed for investigation.
In Statesville, police cars ringed the church Wednesday night to keep reporters and onlookers at a distance during an emotional evening service.
"We're thankful for the time that we've had here in the sanctuary," the Rev. Rick Cruz, one of the church's pastors, told reporters afterward. "At the church, we've just had a gathering of prayer in which much of the church family came together and just gave thanks to our God."
"This is a time of difficulty," he said. "But we trust in God. We trust that he is fair always, and so all your prayers are appreciated at this time."
Matthew DeLuca of NBC News contributed to this report.