Inside: More coverage; how to help
Bastrop Senior Center members try to carry on after days of heartbreak.
The weekly Thursday fellowship luncheon at the Bastrop Senior Center took on a somber tone this week.
Many members arrived before noon with casserole dishes and cakes, hoping to enjoy a meal and laughter after two days of heartbreak and uncertainty. They didn’t know whether their friends and relatives would come back whole after a bus crash in Biloxi, Miss., killed four people and sent 35 to the hospital.
A train struck the tour bus, whose 49 passengers included at least 27 from Bastrop County, when the bus became stuck on a railroad crossing on the way to a Biloxi casino. The four who died were Lockhart couple Kenneth and Peggy Hoffman, 82 and 73; Sealy resident Clinton Havran, 72; and Deborah Orr, the activities director at the senior center.
“She put some spirit in this place,” senior center member Bernadette Lycken said of Orr. “I’m mad at God to take her. I’d be glad to go instead.”
Georgia Storey, spokeswoman for Singing River Health System, whose hospitals took 17 patients, said all but five had been released as of Thursday afternoon. Those five are all in stable condition, she said. She added that the hospitals are trying to keep families comfortable and help the patients track down their belongings. Another hospital that received patients from the crash didn’t return calls about their conditions.
Eight survivors of the crash returned to Bastrop on Wednesday night, looking weary but relieved as they stepped off another bus to applause.
They included Austin resident Justine Nygren, who said she was one of the first to make it off the bus in Biloxi before the train struck it. She returned home to a hug from Cliff Wright, who said his wife, Carol Wright, 70, is still in intensive care in a Mississippi hospital with eight broken ribs.
“She was on the bus trying to get people off when the train hit,” Cliff Wright said. “With the older folks, they can’t just jump.”
He planned to drive to see his wife Thursday, once her son arrived to drive with him.
Friends Geraldine Castillo and Pat Malerk also turned out to give hugs to the bus passengers returning home. They said they knew most of the people on the trip, including Orr, whom they described as bubbly and full of fun.
“You could pick Debbie out of a crowd,” Malerk said. “She was always wearing fun clothes and hats.”
Shortly before the bus with the survivors arrived, the family of victims Kenneth and Peggy Hoffman released a statement.
“Yesterday, our family suffered a tragic loss, which is difficult to fathom and hard to bear,” the Hoffmans’ family said. “We lost two incredible people we were privileged to call mother and father, Mawmaw and Pawpaw, and more than that, our teachers, coaches, mentors, and touchstones.”
The Lockhart school district, where Kenneth and Peggy Hoffman worked for years, shared the statement Wednesday evening.
“We will miss his sweet, gentle soul and her steady level-headedness, which anchored us in the toughest storms,” the statement said. “We cannot understand what it means to be in this world without them, but we know they would have us continue doing the very things they’ve always taught us to do: love God and love one another.”
With many of the center’s members still in Mississippi, Thursday’s lunch crowd at the senior center was smaller than usual, members said.
At scattered tables, men and women played poker and canasta. Diane Gordon played soft piano music. Barbara Adkins, the center’s president, handed out slips of paper with information on how to donate to the victims. Two chaplains arrived to offer counseling.
“I haven’t slept in a couple days,” Mary Ann Seidel said. “I haven’t been able to eat. It’s hard and it’s never going to be the same.”
The trip to Mississippi was meant to be an exciting excursion to visit casinos and historical sites. The senior center organizes trips regularly for members and others who want to participate.
“I got on these trips regularly,” Seidel said. “I won’t anymore.”
Despite the pain, Adkins called the regular luncheon necessary.
“It’s important for everybody to be together and fellowship and to talk,” she said. “It’s good recovery for them, as well.”
Bernadette Lycken (center) plays cards Thursday with her friends at the Bastrop Senior Center, two days after several members lost their lives when a charter bus was struck by a train in Biloxi, Miss. Members say that Deborah Orr, one of the crash victims who also helped organize the trip, would want all of them to keep laughing and loving each other. “She put some spirit in this place,” Lycken said of Orr.
Song Heathman (left) hugs Mary Ann Seidel, while both remember their friend Deborah Orr, who lost her life on Tuesday in the charter bus crash.