SHREVEPORT, La. (ABP) — A church-bus crash that killed one teenager and critically injured another July 12 could have been worse if a transport bus carrying National Guard soldiers had not come upon the accident scene nearly immediately, according to the pastor of the stricken congregation.
"Every story for people of faith has these subplots where God sends his angels," he said July 13.
Hunt said the soldiers were traveling right behind the church bus, which was carrying 17 teenagers and six adults when it blew a tire on Interstate 20 near Meridian, Miss. The blowout caused the driver to lose control, and the bus flipped three times before landing on its side.
He said guardsmen literally lifted the bus off the ground to remove two victims trapped underneath. Unit members trained in triage immediately started treating the most seriously injured until emergency crews arrived.
One youth died on the way to the hospital. Hunt identified the dead teenager as Brandon Ugarte. Hunt said he did not know the boy's age, but media reports said the age of the fatality was 14.
Hunt described Ugarte as "a lovely young man" who, while not a church member, was involved both with the youth group and First Baptist's Chinese mission.
Ugarte was one of three crash victims airlifted from the crash site to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Miss.
Another victim taken to the Jackson hospital was Maggie Lee Henson, the daughter of John Henson, the church's associate pastor for emerging ministries. She remained in critical condition the morning of July 13 with severe head injuries.
Hunt said doctors worked throughout the day July 12 to stabilize her because of heart and lung complications. Surgeons were waiting for her vital signs to improve before operating.
A third victim, Lauren Murchison, was having surgery July 13 to repair a broken femur. She suffered multiple fractures, a punctured lung and cuts and bruises. "She's not in good shape, but they are confident they will be able to put her back together again," Hunt said.
Hunt said in all six people remained hospitalized a day after the accident. They included Jason Matlack, the church's minister of youth, and another adult sponsor, Kyle Kelley, who is part-time associate coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Louisiana. Kelley's wife, Charlene, represents Louisiana on the CBF's national Coordinating Council.
"The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship family grieves over this tragic accident involving members of one of our partner congregations," said Daniel Vestal, CBF's executive coordinator. "I encourage each of us to be in prayer for the family of the deceased, those who are injured and this church family during this time of crisis. We know that the Lord who gives us life will also sustain us through difficult times."
The group had left the church's campus in Shreveport about 4:45 a.m. on July 12. They were headed toward a week-long camp operated by Passport, a Christian organization formed in 1993 that combines camping with a hands-on mission project. Passport is a CBF partner organization, and youth groups from many CBF partner churches participate annually in Passport camps.
Camp pastors told participants in the Passport session that began July 12 about the tragedy during their Sunday vespers service and prayed for those involved.
"Passport has been inundated with prayers of support for the students, leaders and their families," said Colleen Burroughs, the group's executive vice president. "Meridian ministers and churches have been gracious in their response and offers for help, as has the hospital staff. We continue to wait for positive reports for those still in the care of the medical staffs in Jackson and Meridian."
Burroughs and her husband, Passport President and CEO David Burroughs, traveled to Meridian the night of June 12 after learning about the accident. She described it as "a terrible tragedy that will take a long time to recover from on physical and emotional levels."
The camp was being held on the campus of Mercer University in Macon, Ga. Mercer President William Underwood expressed "profound sympathy" to the Shreveport congregation.
"Our thoughts and prayers will be with them as they grieve and heal in the days and weeks ahead," Underwood said in a statement.
The crash occurred shortly after 10 a.m. Back in Shreveport, church began hearing about it just minutes later, while gathering for First Baptist's 10:30 a.m. worship service.
Hunt said as soon as word of the tragedy was received, the church immediately altered plans for its two morning services, focusing on prayer and immediate action.
"Our church was the church yesterday," he said, describing the experience as "just absolutely an extraordinary story of love and grace."
Parents and church members rushed to Mississippi, where members of two Meridian congregations — First Baptist Church and Fifteenth Avenue Baptist Church, met them to help sort out where their loved ones had been sent. Emergency personnel took injured victims who were not airlifted to Jackson to three local hospitals in the Meridian area. Luggage and other items recovered from the crash site were taken to Fifteenth Avenue Baptist Church — located in Meridian's hospital district — where family members could pick them up.
Hunt said support for the congregation was flooding in from all over the world. Several prayer groups cropped up on social-networking sites, and by the morning of July 13 one Facebook group had more than 1,200 members and nearly 100 wall postings.
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.