13 churches mem­ber deaths are 'hard to com­pre­hend'

New Braun­fels con­gre­ga­tion is shaken af­ter bus crash. ‘You were singing with them that morn­ing and they’re in heaven tonight.’

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Asher Price and Mark Wil­son ash­er­price@states­man.com md­wil­son@states­man.com

A crush of black skid LEAKEY — marks. A curled-up frag­ment of a women’s gold watch­band. A beaten-up black boot. A lit­ter of lavender med­i­cal la­tex gloves and emp­tied wa­ter bot­tles.

These are the re­main­ing marks of a dev­as­tat­ing crash in Uvalde County that has shaken a church com­mu­nity in New Braun­fels af­ter 13 mem­bers of the con­gre­ga­tion died on their way home from a re­treat filled with joy, wor­ship and song.

Texas Depart­ment of Pub­lic Safety in­ves­ti­ga­tors are still try­ing to de­ter­mine why the driver of a white, du­ally pickup, 20-year-old Jack Dil­lon Young, swerved into on­com­ing traf­fic on U.S. 83 and col­lided head-on with a bus car­ry­ing con­gre­gants from the First Bap­tist Church of New Braun­fels.

The sole sur­viv­ing rider on the bus, 64-year-old Rose Mary Har­ris of New Braun­fels, was air­lifted Wed­nes­day to San An­to­nio Mil­i­tary Med­i­cal Cen­ter and

re­mained in crit­i­cal con­di­tion Thurs­day. Young also sur­vived the crash and was at Univer­sity Hos­pi­tal in San An­to­nio in sta­ble con­di­tion, DPS spokesman Lt. Johnny Her­nan­dez said.

DPS in­ves­ti­ga­tors are look­ing into phone calls from driv­ers who re­ported a white pickup driv­ing er­rat­i­cally on U.S. 83 be­fore the crash, Her­nan­dez said. Fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors with the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board have also joined the case, he said.

In this cor­ner of God’s coun­try, where the ranch­ing plains of South Texas first give way to the Hill Coun­try, where the Frio River has long lent re­fresh­ment and re­demp­tion to the pi­o­neer and the pil­grim, noth­ing sig­naled the clash of peace­ful­ness and hor­ror that took place here Wed­nes­day like the min­gling sounds of the war­blers’ melody and the rum­ble of hefty pick­ups.

Bap­tists have camped in these parts for at least a cen­tury, dunk­ing them­selves in the Frio to mark their reded­i­ca­tion to their faith. But on Thurs­day at Alto Frio, the sprawl­ing re­li­gious camp that had hosted the First Bap­tist Church of New Braun­fels the first half of the week, staffers were sub­dued, their eyes red-rimmed.

Only a day ear­lier, the lat­est church re­treat — 65 peo­ple from the New Braun­fels church had come for their an­nual se­nior adult gath­er­ing — had ended with a cel­e­bra­tory burst of hymns.

“We were up there for three days, and we had a won­der­ful time, just won­der­ful,” said Ruth Pharis, a mem­ber of First Bap­tist Church for roughly 15 years who over­sees the church’s pup­pet min­istry and sings with the choir.

That Wed­nes­day morn­ing, Pharis had been singing along­side many of those who would die a few hours later.

“I stood next to one of the girls that goes to Oak­wood Church, but she comes and sings in our se­nior choir. Her name is Ad­die Sch­meltekopf,” Pharis said. “We were just prais­ing God yes­ter­day morn­ing and hav­ing the great­est time, and now she’s gone. It’s just hard to com­pre­hend it, I guess. And yet I know that she’s prais­ing God, and she’s at his throne right now.”

Ed­win Pharis, Ruth’s hus­band, said most peo­ple on the bus were wid­ows or wid­ow­ers. The bus could only hold 14 peo­ple, and many of the other church mem­bers who at­tended the re­treat had driven their own cars to the event.

Af­ter it was over, Ruth and Ed­win Pharis loaded up their SUV and headed back to New Braun­fels on Texas 46, but the bus went the other way. She said the crash prob­a­bly hap­pened a few min­utes af­ter they had all left Alto Frio.

She said she didn’t even know any­thing bad had hap­pened un­til she got back and got a phone call from a friend ask­ing if the bus that had been hit be­longed to her church.

“We dashed up here to the church as fast as we could, and didn’t know for hours how many had been killed or any­thing, and it turns out all of them had been killed,” she said. “It’s just hard to know that you were singing with them that morn­ing and they’re in heaven tonight, you know? It just hits you so hard. You can’t com­pre­hend that many peo­ple gone at one time.”

A few hours af­ter the crash, the church was full of peo­ple talk­ing, pray­ing and try­ing to grasp the mag­ni­tude of the loss.

Now that au­thor­i­ties have iden­ti­fied all of the vic­tims, faith and com­mu­nity will be more im­por­tant than ever, church mem­bers said.

“You’re go­ing to see all these peo­ple in this church will be com­ing and help­ing with all the work and all that’s go­ing to need to be done,” Ed­win Pharis said. “We’re look­ing at a lot of fu­ner­als this next week.”

The New Braun­fels group was composed of a “spe­cial group of peo­ple” that had un­der­taken “faith­ful ser­vice,” Alto Frio, the Bap­tist en­camp­ment — which has a se­ries of wor­ship cen­ters, cab­ins and bas­ket­ball and vol­ley­ball courts be­side the banks of the river — said in a state­ment of grief.

Far­ther north on U.S. 83 in Leakey, a town of less than 450 peo­ple, you could hear peo­ple chat­ting about Young at the li­brary or at the Mill Creek Cafe, only a mile or two from the Bap­tist en­camp­ment.

Nineteen-year-old Ha­ley Wheat­ley, a wait­ress at the cafe, said he was a “fun-lov­ing, easy­go­ing guy.” Only a few days ago they had watched the Western “The Mag­nif­i­cent Seven” with friends, and he cracked jokes about the movie along with ev­ery­one else, she said.

The town is left grop­ing for an­swers as it tries to rec­on­cile the tragic crash with the young man they know, she said: “Ev­ery­one knows ev­ery­one in this town. It’s hard for us to imag­ine he was the cause of the ac­ci­dent.”

The four-mile stretch of U.S. 83 from Garner State Park to Con­can has seen more than 15 crashes a year be­tween 2010 and 2016, but just one fa­tal car crash in that time. Five other wrecks dur­ing that time caused “in­ca­pac­i­tat­ing in­juries,” ac­cord­ing to Texas Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion sta­tis­tics.

The wind­ing sec­tion be­tween FM 1050 on the north and Texas 127, aside from those six se­ri­ous accidents, had 28 col­li­sions that caused lesser in­juries and 75 that had no in­juries re­ported dur­ing that same time pe­riod.

Un­til Wed­nes­day’s ter­ri­ble in­ci­dent,U.S.83be­tween­those two in­ter­sect­ing roads had seen no accidents of any kind this year, ac­cord­ing to TxDOT.

Speak­ing to re­porters Thurs­day, Pas­tor Brad McLean of the First Bap­tist Church of New Braun­fels asked for con­tin­ued prayers and sup­port for both the mem­bers of the con­gre­ga­tion who were killed or hurt, and for the fam­ily of the man be­hind the wheel of the pickup that col­lided with the bus.

“That fam­ily is hurt­ing,” McLean said. “I en­cour­age that we show grace to them, we pray for them and show love for them as they work through a very dif­fi­cult time as well.”

McLean said the peo­ple who died were in­di­vid­u­als whose faces he saw on a weekly ba­sis. They were peo­ple he had din­ner with, laughed with, cried with and wor­shipped with.

“They were part of our church fam­ily, so they will be deeply missed,” he said.


A man ar­rives to leave flow­ers Thurs­day at the First Bap­tist Church of New Braun­fels. In­ves­ti­ga­tors are still try­ing to de­ter­mine why the driver of a pickup swerved into on­com­ing traf­fic on U.S. 83 and col­lided head-on with a bus car­ry­ing con­gre­gants from the church.

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