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Church Bus Accident Leaves 8 Dead

The senior citizens from Texas were in Louisiana as part of an annual tour. The driver might have fallen asleep.

October 14, 2003|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — A church bus from Texas carrying senior citizens on a cross-country tour crashed into an 18-wheeler parked on the shoulder of an interstate in northeastern Louisiana on Monday, killing eight people and injuring seven.

The bus driver told police he might have fallen asleep at the wheel, Louisiana State Police Trooper Julie Lewis said. "Someone on the bus yelled at him, but it was too late for him to take any evasive action," she said.

The crash occurred shortly after 11 a.m. CDT on a rural stretch of Interstate 20 in Louisiana, near the Mississippi line. Louisiana State Police spokesman Lt. William Davis said the driver of the tractor-trailer, who was hauling cotton, "was having some difficulty with his brakes. He stopped on the side of the road and went underneath the truck to work on the truck. He had just reentered the tractor portion when the crash occurred."

The truck driver, Ernest Mixon, 69, suffered minor head and neck injuries. The surviving passengers -- including four who were critically injured -- were taken to several hospitals in Mississippi and Louisiana, Lewis said. The bus driver, Kenneth J. Thomas, 66, of Eldorado, had moderate injuries.

As investigators tried to reconstruct the accident, the tractor-trailer remained upright on the side of the road, with the church bus -- a large motor coach with room for about 40 passengers -- embedded in the back left portion of the trailer. Bales of cotton, clothing and pillows were scattered on the highway, Lewis said.

One lane of I-20 east reopened around 5 p.m. Police closed the interstate for another two hours later as a flatbed trailer towed away the wreckage.

Most of the passengers were members of First Baptist Church in the West Texas town of Eldorado. One or two were friends of church members, Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran said.

The group left Sunday for a semiannual tour that was to take them to Vicksburg, Miss.; the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville; and the Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg, Pa.

"It's something the church does for the seniors; they go on different tours every year," said Doran. Each passenger paid $980 for the 16-day trip.

Eldorado, a ranching town 160 miles northwest of San Antonio, is reeling from the news, he said. "We're a small town with less than 2,000 people," he said. "Something like this is going to hit the core of our community."

"Most of the people on the bus were long-standing citizens," Eldorado City Secretary Carolyn Mayo said. "People come and ago, but they ... were here for years and years. Everybody in this town probably knows someone who was on that bus."

Mayo said the church group was "filled with active people -- retired schoolteachers, nurses, a retired rural mail carrier."

"They go off on these trips periodically, and usually have a good time," she said. "They usually take at least two people that drive, so they can swap out."

A recording on the church answering machine asked callers to leave a message. "We are trying to keep the lines free to contact friends and family involved in the crash," a woman's voice said.

Authorities identified those killed as Kennith Richardson, Betty A. Richardson, Delia Pina, Domingo Pina and Mary Ruth Robinson, all of Eldorado; Jean S. Demere and Jimmy D. Teel, both of Water Valley; and Laverne Shannon of San Angelo.

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