ATLANTA -- A small college in Ohio was in mourning yesterday after a bus carrying the baseball team tumbled over the side of a highway overpass and slammed onto the pavement 30 feet below, killing four students, the driver, and his wife.
The team from close-knit Mennonite-affiliated Bluffton University was making its annual spring training trip to Florida before daybreak when the charter bus crashed, scattering bags of baseball equipment across the road. Some of the athletes climbed out the roof escape hatch, dazed and bloody.
"I just looked out and saw the road coming up at me. I remember the catcher tapping me on the head, telling me to get out because there was gas all over," said A. J. Ramthun, an 18-year-old second-baseman from Springfield, Ohio, who was asleep in a window seat and suffered a broken collarbone and cuts on his face. "I heard some guys crying: 'I'm stuck! I'm stuck!' "
Investigators said the driver apparently mistook an exit ramp for a lane and went into the curve at full speed. It was dark at the time, but the weather was clear.
On the 1,150-student campus in Bluffton, about 50 miles south of Toledo, students and community residents filled the gymnasium to grieve and learn more about what happened. When news of the crash appeared on television, students desperately tried to reach some of the athletes on their cellphones.
Sophomore Courtney Minnich said that at a college as small as Bluffton, "even if you didn't know everybody, it will hurt, because you've seen them on campus."
Classes were canceled, along with other sports trips that had been scheduled during next week's spring break. A candlelight vigil was held last night. Airlines arranged for the players' parents to fly to Atlanta for free .
Megan Barker, a sophomore, said she knew just about everyone on the team and described them as "a fun-loving group of guys."
Twenty-eight players and their coach, James Grandey, 29, were taken to the hospital. He and six players were reported in serious or critical condition; many of the rest were soon released. The players' injuries included broken bones, cuts, and bruises.
The bus had set out from Ohio the evening before and had traveled all night before it went off the road and landed on its side on Interstate 75 about 5:30 a.m. Two vehicles under the overpass were struck by the bus, but their drivers were not hurt.
"It looked to me like a big slab of concrete falling down," said Danny Lloyd, 57, of Frostburg, Md., who was driving a pickup. "I didn't recognize it was a bus. I think when I saw the thing coming, I think I closed my eyes and stepped on the gas."
The National Transportation Safety Board was called in to investigate. Investigators said there were no skid marks, and they hoped to tap into the vehicle's computer system for clues. The driver had boarded the bus with his wife less than an hour before the wreck, relieving another driving team, authorities said.
It was not immediately known whether the bus had seat belts. Motorcoaches like the one involved typically do not have seat belts in the passenger section. Calls to the charter company, based in Ottawa, Ohio, were not immediately returned.
A statement headlined "We Grieve" on the company's website said in red letters: "We at Executive Coach Luxury Travel Inc. are deeply saddened by this travesty. We are continuing to cooperate with the officials investigating the accident in Atlanta, Ga. Our thoughts and prayers are with all of the victims and their families."
The university identified the victims as sophomores David Betts and Tyler Williams; freshmen Scott Harmon and Cody Holp; bus driver Jerome Niemeyer; and his wife, Jean Niemeyer, all of them from Ohio.
" For now we're pulling together and supporting each other as best we can," said James Harder, the school's president.
The baseball team had been scheduled to play its first spring training game of the season in Sarasota, Fla., today.