(WBIR-Knoxville) "Our hearts are broken but our faith is strong," said Pastor Tim Stutts, of Front Street Baptist Church. Eighteen members of his Statesville, North Carolina, church were involved in an horrific traffic crash on I-40 in Jefferson County Wednesday. Six of the senior citizens on board the bus were killed. Twelve remain hospitalized.
Stutts called this the greatest tragedy his church and community had ever suffered.
The church's Young at Heart group, made up of senior citizens, were on their way back from a gathering in Gatlinburg when the accident happened. Stutts said the group is close-knit, they love to travel together, and spread the love of Jesus Christ. They are " foundational members of the church", "pillars of the community," and the church will not be the same without them.
He and Youth Pastor Jeremy Miller headed to East Tennessee Wednesday before they even knew how serious the crash was. He said it was hard to get accurate information until they arrived, and learned the extent of the tragedy.
The families and congregation are relying on faith and prayers to get them through the loss of members Brenda Smith, 69, Marsha Mclelland, 62, John Wright, 73, Barbara Morrison, 66, and her husband and the bus driver, Randy Morrison, 66.
Stutts, as he fought back tears, said it was not those that are lost that the congregation was suffering for, but for the families and loved ones left behind. He takes great comfort in knowing that those that died are in presence of the Lord.
The pastor had visited with and prayed with all the survivors of the crash, whose injuries range from very critical to stable. He said they were obviously devastated by what had happened, but they were more concerned about the well-being of their friends than themselves. He said they all talked about the wonderful care they were receiving at UT Medical Center.
The injured from Front Street Baptist Church are: Cloyce Matheny (M), 95; Thomas L. Smith, 74; Joanna L. Elledge, 70; Benny Elledge, 72; Sandra Boyer, 67; Marvin Boyer, 74; Doris Swaim, 68; Steven Swaim, 68; Norma J. Hellard, 78; Beverly Wright, 62; Brenda Jolly, 70, Wanda Martin, 63; and Ed Mclelland, 64, whose wife was Marsha was killed in the crash.
Stutts said he's been hearing the question, "Where was God in all this?" His answer is this,"In the last 24 hours, I've seen the hand of God in the state troopers, at the medical center at UT, the pastoral comfort team at UT, the Red Cross, both here and in Statesville, the community that's come together."
He said he's received letters and calls of support from all over the country, and even from people in Southeast Asia. He said people in Knoxville had offered them places to stay, even though they don't know them. He said his faith in God, and the love and support he's seen so far is what's helping them through.
Stutts asked for continued prayers for the victims and their families, and the medical staff that is caring for them.
Front Street Baptist Church has 375 members, and is very active in the Statesville community and the mission field. The Young at Heart group meets weekly as a choir to prepare programs to perform at local nursing homes and other churches. They are all heavily involved in the ministry of the church.
As for the accident itself, the Tennessee Highway Patrol believes a tire problem sent the bus swerving out of control, crossing the median and into oncoming traffic, hitting an SUV and a tractor trailer, which caught fire. The driver of the truck and a passenger in the SUV, Trent Roberts, were also killed. The truck driver has not yet been positively identified.