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Church mourns victims of fiery Tenn. bus crash

Friday - 10/4/2013, 7:00am  ET

AP: c00e5b2c-31a6-47db-b2d1-2b586d692b84
A woman places her hand over her face as she talks on the phone outside the Front Street Baptist Church Statesville, N.C., Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013. At least eight members of the church were killed when their bus blew a tire, crossed a highway median and crashed near Dandridge, Tenn., on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

By MITCH WEISS and KRISTIN M. HALL Associated Press

STATESVILLE, N.C. (AP) - Daniel Morrison said his parents were always there for him - especially after his wife Monica died in December of a brain aneurysm. They stayed long hours at his home in North Carolina's Piedmont region, helping him raise his 2-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter.

Now Morrison is processing more devastating news. He learned Wednesday his parents were among eight people killed when a church bus carrying members blew a tire, veered across a Tennessee highway median and crashed into a sport utility vehicle and a tractor-trailer.

His father, who had once worked for a trucking company and his mother, once a school teacher, were gone. Randy and Barbara Morrison were both 66 and had been married for nearly 50 years.

"You expect things to happen - you don't expect them to happen in one year," he said. "I know the Lord has a reason for everything, but I don't know what it is yet."

The bus was carrying a group of seniors from a Statesville, N.C., church back home from their big annual outing - a trip to a three-day festival in Gatlinburg, Tenn., featuring gospel singers and speakers.

The collision occurred Wednesday on Interstate 40 in northeastern Tennessee. It left the bus on its side next to the tractor-trailer, the wreckage extending across two lanes of traffic and partly into the median. Fourteen others were hurt, two in critical condition.

The Tennessee Highway Patrol on Thursday afternoon identified seven of the eight people killed.

Six of the dead were members of the Front Street Baptist Church in Statesville, including Randy Morrison, who police said was driving the bus, and his wife, Barbara.

Other victims from the church were 95-year-old Cloyce Matheny, 69-year-old Brenda Smith, 62-year-old Marsha McLelland and 73-year-old John Wright. All were from Statesville except Wright, from nearby Mocksville, N.C.

The Tennessee Highway Patrol said the bus, once the tire ruptured, cross the median into oncoming traffic. The tractor-trailer caught fire.

One person in the sport utility vehicle, Trent Roberts, 24, of Knoxville, Tenn., was killed. The driver of the tractor-trailer also was killed but has not yet been identified.

And the partial government shutdown has affected the investigation.

The National Transportation Safety Board wasn't sending investigators to Tennessee to probe the deadly crash - even though it's the type of accident the agency would typically look into. Nearly all of the board's 400 employees have been furloughed because of the shutdown, including accident investigators.

Statesville is a small city located at the juncture of Interstates 40 and 77, and about 30 miles north of Charlotte.

When Daniel Morrison first heard about the fiery bus crash, he braced for the worst. For hours after the crash, Daniel Morrison frantically scrambled to find out information about his parents. Were they injured? If so, how bad?

Then a pastor at the Front Street Baptist Church called and broke the devastating news.

"I'm still processing it," said Daniel Morrison, one of the couple's five children, pausing to shake his head. He said both had looked forward to the trip, having devoted so much to their church.

The night before the trip, Randy Morrison asked his neighbor Kenneth Snead to help clean the bus. Morrison lived across the street from the church and was always working on the bus, Snead said.

When Snead was done cleaning, Morrison asked for one more favor: Could he take care of Morrison's three dogs while he was away?

"That was no problem," said Snead, who has lived next to Morrison for 32 years.

He said Morrison mowed the lawn for about 20 elderly people at church. "He did it for free," said Snead, looking at the Morrisons' tiny house. Their car was parked in the driveway, the dogs barking in the backyard.

He recalled that the couple would leave their house every Sunday morning, holding hands as they walked 50 yards to church. "You couldn't find nicer people. They were always trying to help people," he said.

Daniel Morrison said his parents always looked out for others.

"They didn't care about nice cars or fancy homes," he said. "They never did anything for themselves. They gave their time and money to their grandchildren and their church."

Other victims' families said they were having a difficult time.

Jerry Wright is the brother of victim John Wright, who had been a member of the church for 50 years and had been a deacon. Jerry Wright said he heard the sad news from his nephew Thursday morning. His brother's wife, 62-year-old Beverly Wright, was seriously hurt.

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