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A Crash Takes Toll on Texas Church

Most of the eight victims belonged to First Baptist in Eldorado. They were its 'backbone,' a minister says.

October 15, 2003|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

ELDORADO, Texas — A stream of hearses will climb a wind-swept plateau here today, heading toward a church whose faith has been bowed, but not broken, by a bus accident that killed eight friends, including five church elders.

Eldorado, with just 1,946 people and 11 houses of worship, is, in the words of one pastor, "well-churched."

Most of the victims of Monday's crash attended the First Baptist Church, whose white steeple is the highest point in town. They were not just members of his congregation, said the Rev. Andy Anderson, but the church's "backbone, the reason this has been a great church for a long time."

Kennith Richardson, 81, a World War II veteran who died along with his wife, Betty, tutored children by reading to them in a deep, booming voice. Domingo Pina, 65, a retired farmhand and roustabout on local oil fields, was a talented mechanic who kept church vehicles and other equipment working. His wife, Delia, 72, a retired nurse, was well known for having delivered half the babies in town and often played piano for church services.

"But we have a belief in a future life, in heaven," Anderson said, his bespectacled eyes worn raw with tears, his voice catching. "This is not the end for these folks. I will attempt to preach that message to their families."

The victims were part of a group of seniors, many of them lifelong friends, who began taking road trips together 18 years ago, on a cranky school bus they named "Old Faithful." The nickname was less a reference to God than to the faith required among passengers that the bus would make it up the next hill.

The "ambassadors" of First Baptist -- the church's groundskeepers, baby-sitters and piano player among them -- embarked on their road trips twice a year. They were on their third bus and, by now, had their routine down. They stopped periodically for pimento cheese sandwiches on the side of the road. They saw Christmas plays on the coast, wildflowers in the Hill Country, the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.

Together, they laughed, griped about their aching joints and grew old, and the promise of the next trip -- along with their faith -- kept them going.

Monday morning, cherished tradition and a bond forged over thousands of miles in a bus came crashing down on this town with more vengeance than any dust storm or tornado ever has. Eight of the 15 people on board the bus died when the driver, himself a church deacon, apparently fell asleep and crashed into the back of a tractor-trailer on the shoulder of a Louisiana interstate.

Most of the bodies will lie in state under the stained-glass windows of the sanctuary until Friday morning, when the string of funerals is expected to begin, family members said.

The victims ranged in age from 63 to 81 and included two couples from this central Texas town -- the Pinas were married for more than 40 years, the Richardsons for more than 50. An Eldorado woman whose husband survived the crash, as well as three other area residents, two from Water Valley and one from San Angelo, were also among the dead.

The seven survivors remained in hospitals Tuesday near the crash site, outside Tallulah, La. Two remained in critical condition with head injuries but are expected to survive, Anderson said.

"It's going to take a long time for a town of this size to get over it," said 79-year-old Corrine Hext, who has been on nearly every trip but skipped this one to tend to her husband's bad knees. "We were family. We had a ball. But it's all over. I don't guess we'll ever do it again."

Anderson informed the community of its loss by posting a one-page note on the door, listing the names of the dead. The first five names were typed; two more were scrawled in pencil after word arrived from Louisiana that they had died.

Tuesday evening, staffers and volunteers were still scrambling to cope with somber practicalities before they could begin to grieve.

"You're cutting out just a little bit," Anderson said into the static of a cellular phone at one point, speaking to the daughter of one victim. "But I heard you say something about an open casket."

A short stack of pamphlets entitled "How to Comfort Those who Mourn" had been placed on a shelf in the church foyer. There seemed to be few takers, and Sylas Politte, the church's 22-year-old youth minister, said he was struggling to answer questions from the congregation.

"They all want to know why it happened. You can't really explain that to kids -- not because they can't understand it, but because it's too hard to answer," Politte said.

"Maybe it's because the driver fell asleep. Maybe it's because the truck was parked where it was. The question of 'why' -- that's not going to be answered. It's beyond us. What we have to do now is trust the Lord. That's the only thing we have left."

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