Classmates Wait For News After Hearing Bus Carrying Baseball Players Wrecked

Sunday, March 4th 2007, 2:21 pm
By: News On 6

BLUFFTON, Ohio (AP) _ Curtis Martin was lifting weights at daybreak when he saw on television that a bus carrying Bluffton University's baseball team had plunged off an overpass in Georgia.

He and his teammates on the school's football team frantically called their friends who were on the bus, but got no answers. By mid-afternoon Friday, they still didn't know who survived.

``That's the worst part,'' Martin said. ``You know that some of those people who you have classes with aren't going to be there.''

Nine hours passed before officials of the 1,200-student university released the names of the four students who were killed in Atlanta along with the bus driver and his wife.

Sadness overwhelmed students who could only wait and wonder as they shuffled into a prayer vigil just a few hours after the accident. Unable to give them many details, Bluffton President James Harder told them ``the most difficult thing is not knowing what happened.''

He, too, did not know the names yet.

Harder said he didn't want a repeat of the tragic mix-up that followed a deadly crash of five students from Taylor University in Indiana, which left the parents of one of the dead mistakenly thinking their daughter had survived.

On Sunday, family members of killed and injured students planned to return to Ohio aboard a charter flight to Toledo, about 55 miles north of Bluffton.

Nearly everyone on campus knew at least one person on the bus. ``We all recognize the faces,'' said Jake Slager, a senior from Hopedale, Ill.

On the day of the wreck, some stayed inside the student union for hours, sitting at computers to check their e-mail and social-networking Internet sites Facebook and MySpace. Others compulsively looked at their cell phones, hoping to hear a familiar voice.

Martin went back to his dormitory and spent an hour online looking at the faces of his friends on the baseball team, thinking about outfielder Tyler Williams.

``He's like a brother to me,'' Martin said.

Williams, a sophomore from Lima, was among those who died.

Also killed were freshman Scott Harmon, of Lima; David Betts, a sophomore from Bryan; and Cody Holp, a freshman from Arcanum. The driver and his wife, Jerome and Jean Niemeyer, also died.

The director of the student union, Mark Bourassa, answered calls coming into the school's main switchboard, some of them from relatives who had not heard from players.

``It's not knowing that is frustrating,'' he said.

While students on campus waited for details, some of the players who walked away from the crash borrowed cell phones from rescue workers to call their families even before they got to hospitals.

Tyler Sprunger, who was sleeping on the floor of the bus and was trapped upside down after the bus hit the pavement, said players also found cell phones in the debris around the bus and used them to call home.

His parents were already at work.

``Call mom and dad and tell the church to pray for us,'' Sprunger told his younger brother at home in Berne, Ind. ``Because there's been a very bad accident.''

Investigators said Niemeyer, 65, apparently mistook an exit ramp off the left lane of Interstate 75 for a regular traffic lane and continued at full speed, right through a stop sign at a T-intersection on the overpass. The bus slammed against a concrete barrier on the overpass and hurtled over it onto the highway pavement below.

Niemeyer had driven the team to Florida two years before, and the couple even stayed to watch the games, said Ed Kay, father of player Timothy Kay, who was not badly hurt.

``They thought it was a fun part of this job,'' he said. ``We know they've driven (the route).''

Kitty Higgins, who is leading the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation, said Saturday that there have been several crashes at the spot, and that there were no visible signs telling drivers to slow down for the ramp.

The Georgia Department of Transportation wants to see recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board before adding any new safety devices such as signs or stoplights to the Interstate 75 ramp, said spokesman David Spear.

``We won't wait until their final published report. If during the course of their conversations it might make this better, we're going to act on it,'' he said.

There are two ``Prepare to Stop'' signs on the ramp, which exits off the left lane, and the same words are painted on the ramp itself, Spear said.