By Samantha Sutherland and Ellen Smith
Early Friday afternoon, a group of 12 ACU students, three faculty and one spouse from the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Science gathered at the Zona Luce Building to prepare for a mission trip to Medina.
Some, like Amanda Wilson, were veterans of the trip. Others, like Jason Iris, had never been. Wilson, junior animal science major from Altaloma, Calif., was readying for her third visit to Medina’s Children’s home, where in years past, the group had volunteered. They helped with grounds work, doing some of the physical labor. They cleared loose wood from the property, painted, cut trees and pulled weeds. On Saturday evenings, the group prepared a dinner for the children and other families on the campus.
The group began loading at 1:40 p.m., but the bus never filled to capacity. Many students had called last-minute to cancel because of school or work conflicts. The group prayed, and at 2 p.m. the bus departed, heading south with its 16 passengers.
Amanda Wilson took a seat in the second row on the right side of the bus; Iris, senior environmental science major from Southhamton, Bermuda, sat further back on the left.
Wilson said the bus was buzzing with lively conversation and ringing with laughter. Everyone was excited about the trip, she said.
About a hour and a half into the trip, the chattering had quieted down, and one by one, students began to doze off.
Iris sat in the row directly in front of Anabel Reid, sophomore environmental sciences major from Petersburg, and Tiffany Lutz, senior animal science major from Zelienople, Penn. He was reading a book and chiming in and out of others’ conversations. As he felt the bus go over a few bumps in the road, he looked up to see what was happening.
He saw the bus had drifted to the right and waited for it to pull back on to the road, but it did not.
Wilson was reclining in her seat with her back against the window when she felt the bus beginning to veer off the road.
She glanced out the window and saw the bus heading for the bar ditch on the right. She didn’t worry. When she realized the bus had lost control, she assumed it would run up an embankment or stop in a hole at worst. It was then that she saw the concrete culvert directly ahead of them.
Before the bus could return to the road, it struck the culvert. The impact propelled the bus end-over-end as it careened across County Road 234. It landed on its wheels in the middle of the highway, its top shell ripped off and its rows of seats exposed. Most of the passengers lay scattered across the grassy ditch.
Iris said the last thing he could remember was seeing the ceiling of the bus coming toward him and feeling as if he would not survive. He blacked out for the rest of the accident.
The force of the initial impact of the culvert on the bus pushed Wilson against the window behind her as the bus tilted. When the bus began to roll, she flew forward onto the floor of the aisle. She grabbed onto the bars underneath seat across from her and held on tightly until the bus completed a full rotation and skidded to a stop.
“I just remember telling myself over and over again to stay conscious and to hold on to the seat,” Wilson said.
Assessing the Damage
Dr. Michael Nicodemus, assistant professor of agriculture and environmental sciences, who was driving the shuttle bus, and Dr. Jim Cooke, professor of agriculture and environmental sciences, had both worn seatbelts. After the bus had tumbled into its upright position, only they and two other students, Wilson and Allison Dorshorst, freshman environmental science major from Colleyville, remained onboard.
“As I turned and looked behind me, I saw the bar ditch, and all through the bar ditch was all of our stuff and bodies lying everywhere,” Wilson said. “There were girls lying there in obvious pain, a lot of them not moving, and the whole top of the bus was basically torn off. The bus, the scene, it just looked like a bomb went off, everything was torn to shreds, things were thrown everywhere. It was my worst nightmare come true.”
Iris remembers waking up on the side of the road, about 10 feet from where the bus had landed. He was bleeding from his forehead and felt as if he was unable to move.
“It took me awhile to collect myself and to feel like I could stand up,” Iris said. “When I stood up and looked around, I thought it looked like a war zone. The bus was completely demolished and there was smoke and it smelled bad – like burnt rubber.”
He realized that his tooth was broken and began looking around for it when he spotted Hayley Wilkerson, sophomore animal science major from Ravenna.
“She was like, ‘Hey man, you’re missing your tooth,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, I know,” Iris said. Wilkerson had sat in front of Iris on the right side and had landed nearby after being ejected.
Iris also spotted Anna Watson, sophomore animal science major from Kerrville, whose leg was bleeding, and Emmett Miller, assistant professor of agriculture and environmental sciences, who was near the back of the bus sitting up and bleeding from the head. Miller asked Iris how he was doing and if he was OK. Miller’s wife, Pat Miller, was next to him and was not moving.
Wilson and Dorshorst moved away from the bus because the engine was smoking and fuel was leaking onto the ground. Those who could move pulled the medical kit from the vehicle and began assessing injuries as best they could, fumbling around to try and get the plastic gauze packages open and struggling with shock.
Wilson came upon Reid on the ground near Iris and Lutz.
“When I found Anabel, she was still breathing, but she had a lot of internal injuries,” Wilson said. “She was not conscious, nor was she ever conscious from the time that the motion stopped to when she was pronounced dead, so I don’t think she experienced any pain whatsoever.”
A car traveling behind the bus stopped almost immediately after the crash, and the driver dialed 911. Another vehicle, a bus carrying the Winters football team, stopped and contributed more medical kits and water.
Iris saw a man with a gray shirt putting out the fire in the bus engine and another woman attending to Reid.
Crisis and Confusion
The Reynolds County first response team arrived within 15 to 20 minutes of the crash, followed by helicopters from surrounding hospitals.
The police on the scene asked everyone who could walk to move toward the fence. Medics flew those in critical condition to hospitals in Ballinger, San Angelo, Abilene and Dallas.
At one point, four or five helicopters were going to and from the site, landing on both sides of the bus and leaving quickly to transport the crash victims, said Wilson. Ambulances carried those less severely injured the nine miles to Ballinger.
Wilson said the more difficult task for those remaining on the scene was getting a firm count of those involved in the accident, because many had been removed quickly.
Initially, media reported two riders had been killed and – at times – that one student was missing.
“I think that a lot of that confusion had to do with me because I was the one telling them how many people to look for, helping them count and helping them identify people,” Wilson said. “So a lot of times they were counting, but sometimes they weren’t including me and sometimes they were.”
A University Responds
Dr. Phil Schubert, president of the university, said he was on campus watching the championship soccer tournament at 4:30 p.m. when he received a call reporting an ACU bus had been involved in an accident south of Ballinger.
Initially, some thought the bus carried an ACU athletic team. Athletic director Jared Mosley, who was with Schubert at the time, said he was not aware of any athletic teams traveling in that region. Shortly after, Schubert was able to confirm that it was a group from the ag department heading to Medina.
Schubert and a number of other ACU officials dispersed immediately to the area’s hospitals to be with those involved. Schubert to San Angelo, others to Ballinger and Hendrick Medical Center in Abilene.
“It was good to get to hold their hand and talk to them and see their faces,” Schubert said from Shannon Medical Center. “We’re so thankful that they’ve been able to get the care here at this hospital, and they all seemed to be in stable condition once we were able to visit with them.”
Iris was taken to Ballinger Memorial Hospital along with seven others, including Wilson.
“The administration and staff from ACU who came to the hospital to get me and to talk to me have been so supportive, and I really appreciate that,” Iris said.
At 6:30 p.m., word went out to the ACU community about the accident. Plans immediately took shape to conduct a prayer vigil for that night at the Beauchamp Amphitheater to pray for those involved.
“It’s been so meaningful to see the response of the community at ACU just supporting and encouraging us and praying for us, and it has really helped me get through the situation,” Iris said.
Members of the administration picked up Wilson from Ballinger Hospital, and she returned to campus, where she was able to attend the candlelight vigil.
“I don’t know if I can express how much it means to me to come back from the hospital, after writing forms and seeing all of my friends airlifted, to see all the ACU student body there at the devo praying and worshipping, mobilized almost immediately,” Wilson said.
The hospitals where the students were taken filled with students, faculty, staff and alumni who came to comfort and support the victims throughout the night.
“We’ve felt the power of prayer over us, our family and around the organization of everything and how smoothly it went. There were so many things that could have gone so much worse I feel God’s blessing on that,” Wilson said. “So through it all, God is good and He has been amazing to everyone.”