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6 die, 19 injured in bus plunge

Four teammates from Ohio college are killed en route to games, along with driver and his wife.

March 03, 2007|P.J. Huffstutter and Kevin Sack | Times Staff Writers

BLUFFTON, OHIO — Hundreds of students and residents of this small northwestern Ohio town crammed into the Bluffton University gymnasium Friday night, grieving for four members of the school's baseball team who were killed in a horrific bus crash in Atlanta.

At times, as the crowd sat surrounded by the small Mennonite college's sports championship banners, the only sounds were muffled sobs.

"This is a time to mourn and a time to pray," assistant campus pastor Sarah Straks said.

The prayers -- some silent, others whispered -- went out to the victims: David Betts, a sophomore second-baseman; Scott Harmon, a freshman third-baseman; sophomore outfielder Tyler Williams; and Cody Holp, a freshman pitcher.

The driver and his wife, Jerome and Jean Niemeyer, were also killed when the chartered bus flipped over the concrete railing of an interstate overpass and plunged 24 feet to the highway below, Atlanta police said.

The Division III Beavers had been headed to Florida's Gulf Coast for a season-opening double-header today, followed by a week of games.

Some of the other 29 people on the bus -- all teammates and coaches -- suffered broken bones and head trauma while some had only minor scrapes.

As of late Friday afternoon, two victims were listed in critical condition at Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital, one with a brain clot that required surgery. One remained in serious condition and 16 were listed in fair condition. The other passengers were treated and released. Doctors said many of the injured players benefited from being young and athletic.

"This is something that's not going to leave the guys who were on that bus this morning," said A.J. Ramthun, 18, a freshman second-baseman who suffered a broken collarbone, facial cuts and bruises. "This is going to be with us forever. We've been living together, practicing together. We've been a family for the past five months. Something like this morning really makes you think twice about life."

News of the tragedy shocked the students on campus, many of whom were supposed to take midterms Friday before going on spring break. Jordon Bruner stood in front of the campus cafeteria, his jaw clenched tightly in an effort to not cry.

For the last two years, the senior has worked with the school's sports department and helped update its website. He said he'd gotten to know most of the athletes at Bluffton, particularly the members of the baseball team.

"I didn't believe it when my roommate woke me up this morning and told me we had to turn on the TV because there'd been an accident," Bruner, 21, said. "I had just seen them get on the bus Thursday night. We waved goodbye. It wasn't supposed to be goodbye forever."

As they watched TV footage from the scene, Bruner and his friend Colin Yoder began calling the team members' cellphones.

For hours, there was no answer. They left messages, pleading for someone to call them back, until the voicemail systems were full.

"All we could do was pray and hope," said Yoder, 20, a junior. "Then the school told us the news."

The school canceled classes Friday and provided counseling services.

The loss has also shaken residents of this village of about 4,000, many of whom are either alumni or have relatives who work at the college, Mayor Fred Rodabaugh said.

Students are a familiar sight in Bluffton, where Victorian buildings and rambling farmhouses dot the sprawling landscape. At least 800 of the school's nearly 1,200 students live on campus in brick dormitories; they often walk the four blocks to gather at the town's sole coffee shop or get a slice of pizza on Main Street.

On Sundays, many spend their mornings at one of the town's churches. Ministers said Friday that they had fielded calls from weeping residents.

"Some people have asked why God would let something like this happen," Rodabaugh said. "How do you answer that, other than turn to your faith?"

University President James M. Harder said Bluffton had hired Executive Coach Luxury Travel Inc. in the past, in part to prevent accidents. "One of the reasons that you use a bus line is to try to make sure that you do have the best possible safety in place for your students," Harder said.

The National Transportation Safety Board has opened an investigation into the accident; the bus' computerized control system, officials said, might reveal details about the seconds preceding the crash.

Atlanta police officials speculated that Niemeyer had been confused by a fork in a high occupancy vehicle lane and did not realize he was getting off the interstate rather than continuing south.

"If you take the left lane, it's essentially an exit to Northside Drive that takes you up a ramp to a bridge and then ends," Officer Joe Cobb said. "It appears the bus got in that left lane and just drove straight through the stop sign, across six lanes of traffic, hit the bridge barrier on the opposite side and fell to the interstate. There was no sign that the bus braked."

Atlanta police said there was no history of problems at that exit ramp.

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