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10 Are Feared Dead at Texas River : 2 Youths Killed, 8 Reported Missing as Bus, Van Are Swept Into Water

July 18, 1987|BARRY BEARAK | Times Staff Writer

COMFORT, Tex. — Two teen-agers died and eight others were missing and believed drowned Friday when a bus and a van carrying them from a church campground were swamped by an 8-foot wall of water during an attempted crossing of the storm-swollen Guadalupe River.

A 14-year-old Mesquite, Tex., girl was killed when she apparently lost her grip on a helicopter rescue line and dropped an estimated 100 feet into a field while being lifted from the raging river.

The body of the other known fatality, a 13-year-old girl from Scurry, Tex., was found about three miles downstream.

Texas Department of Public Safety officers said at least 19 of the 33 survivors were treated for injuries. Only two were hospitalized overnight, one in guarded condition and the other in stable condition.

Sang Hymns While Clinging to Trees

Some teen-agers clung to trees singing hymns for up to three hours as the floodwaters slowly subsided and Army helicopters from Ft. Sam Houston at nearby San Antonio crisscrossed the area, lifting them to safety one by one.

Men and dogs combed the banks until nightfall, but found no more survivors or bodies. The effort was to resume at daybreak today.

"I don't believe there will be any (more) survivors," department Sgt. Charles Seale said grimly.

All of the missing were teen-agers. The two drivers and two other adults accompanying the campers were able to reach the shore.

The bus, which was swept about 150 yards downstream, was not found until 10 hours after the 7:30 a.m. accident. The van had not been found by evening.

The teen-agers were from Seagoville Road Baptist Church in the Dallas suburb of Balch Springs. They had been on retreat with youngsters from nine other Dallas area churches at the Pot o' Gold campground, just west of Comfort. Seale said there were 32 people on the bus and 11 aboard the van. The two vehicles had left the campground with other buses after authorities ordered an evacuation because it had been raining heavily all night and the river was rising far beyond its banks.

Kendall County Sheriff Lee D' Spain Jr. said camp officials had been called between 3 and 4 a.m. and warned not to try crossing the bridge. He said he thought the accident would not have happened if "they would have taken notice of the warning."

Public Safety Trooper Tom Mobley said that other buses managed to cross the bridge safely, although it was awash with at least one foot of water. But the bus driven by Richard (Whitey) Koons, 26, a youth pastor of the group, stalled out in the wake of the others. Mobley said Koons saw the wall of water rushing toward his bus.

Formed Hand-to-Hand Chain

Koons ordered his passengers to get out of the bus and onto the bridge, where they formed a hand-to-hand chain, Mobley said. Just then, however, the water hit and swept them and the bus from the submerged bridge.

The unidentified driver of the van just behind them also got his passengers off, but the water was quickly up to the steering wheel.

Melissa Henderson, 17, of Mesquite, the daughter of a Baptist minister, was aboard the bus. She said many of the teen-agers screamed in horror as the bus stalled on the flooded bridge. "When we got off, everybody tried to get over to the side," she said. "Everybody went under water. We were in trees across from each other."

Jeremy Morris, 13, of Balch Springs, was in the van when the bus stalled ahead of it and the van driver tried to back to safety. "The van began floating and then we got out and it started sinking," he said. "We got out of there and the kids were holding hands in a line."

Girl Rescued Twice

Melanie Finley, 14, of Mesquite, was rescued twice--only to die in a horrifying plunge.

Seale said she was pulled from the water initially by a San Antonio television camera helicopter crew, but she fell back into the river and was swept away. She then tried to seize a tree branch, but a large log struck her in the back as it shot down the river on the powerful current.

In panic, she grabbed a cypress limb but, said Seale, who was in a Department of Public Safety helicopter, "we could see she was not holding on well. We dropped a line to her and she put it around her shoulder. She waved to us and we pulled her up."

She was dangling below the helicopter as it rose from the river's surface and swung toward an open field. She slipped from the rope and fell to the ground as her would-be rescuers watched.

"I don't know if it was fatigue or her wet clothes, but she just slipped away," Seale said. "She couldn't hold on. She apparently was too weak to hold on . . . "

Second Youth Identified

The other teen-ager, whose body was found downriver, was identified as Tonya Smith, a church school cheerleader.

It was the worst flooding on the Guadalupe River in more than a half century, officials said.

In Balch Springs, meanwhile, frightened parents gathered to learn whether their children had survived. Telephones at the Balch Springs Christian Academy adjacent to the church rang constantly.

"Why hasn't he called me?" asked Virginia Marsh, as she waited to hear about her son, Gene, 14, who was on the bus. Although hospital officials in Kerr County had told her the boy was all right, his name was not on the rescue list.

"I'm sure he's OK, but until he's standing here in front of my face, I'm not going to be sure of anything," she said.

Texas Gov. Bill Clements, who called out the National Guard to help the Army, sheriff's deputies from both Kendall and Kerr counties and volunteer firefighters in the rescue effort, said he was speaking for all Texans in saying: "My prayers are with the victims of this terrible tragedy."

Staff writer Jack Jones in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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