At a university smaller than some high schools, the deaths of four baseball players in a bus crash has left an entire campus feeling a profound sense of loss.
Football players from Bluffton University froze during a morning workout when they heard that the bus carrying the school’s baseball team went off a highway overpass in Atlanta and fell 30 feet to the interstate below early Friday. They, and other students, scrambled to call baseball players’ cell phones.
“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.
Sophomore Courtney Minnich said that at a college as small as Bluffton, “even if you didn’t know everybody, it will hurt, because you’ve seen them on campus.”
Killed were freshman Scott Harmon; sophomore David Bett; freshman Cody Holp; and sophomore Tyler Williams. The driver and his wife, Jerome and Jean Niemeyer, also died.
Coach James Grandey and 28 players were taken to Atlanta-area hospitals. Grandey, 29, and six players were reported in serious or critical condition; many of the rest were soon released.
Kris Grandlinard, 40, flew from Indianapolis with his two daughters to visit his 19-year-old son William, a freshman left-handed pitcher on the team who is in serious condition at Grady Memorial Hospital with a concussion, a broken left arm, cracked ribs and injuries to the spleen and liver.
“I don’t think he’s really grasped the severity of the situation just yet. He knows there’s some kids that have died, but he don’t know who yet. And I don’t know if he really wants to know,” Grandlinard said.
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 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 weren’t guaranteed a spot on the bus, especially freshmen such as Harmon.
“When baseball season comes around, everyone wants to know ’Did you make the bus?”’ said Rustin Pickett, a senior and former player.
'It's one huge family'
Many students attend the university with a focus on playing sports at the Division III level, where the cheering sections are small and typically consist of parents and friends.
“It’s one huge family,” said player Matt Ferguson, who didn’t make the trip. “We spend all day together. We go to classes together. We do everything together.”
Earlier Friday, students and faculty gathered in the school’s basketball arena for a hastily called assembly.
“This is probably about as painful as anything,” university president James Harder said. “We know these people on a first-name basis.”
Police cite road misjudgment
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 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 like the one involved typically do not have seat belts in the passenger section.
The baseball team had been scheduled to play its first spring-training game of the season in Sarasota, Fla., on Saturday and had eight more games scheduled in Fort Myers, Fla.
Bluffton University, located 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.