Six Killed As College Athletes' Bus Crashes

By Peter Slevin and Angela Chatman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 3, 2007

BLUFFTON, Ohio, March 2 -- Spring vacation officially begins this weekend, but the Bluffton University baseball team left campus early to reach Florida in time for a Saturday doubleheader.

Barreling down Interstate 75 in Georgia early Friday morning, the team's charter bus crashed, killing four players, the driver and the driver's wife. Several players are in critical condition, and tightknit Bluffton is in shock.

"We're all friends," said senior Sherrolyn Young, 23. "If you were not friends with them, you were friends with someone who was friends with them."

Less than four hours after Bluffton President James Harder heard the news from the parent of a student on the bus, more than 1,000 people gathered in Founders Hall in prayer and solidarity. All rose to sing "Amazing Grace." Bluffton, a Mennonite university south of Toledo, canceled classes and school-sponsored trips, including a women's softball trip to Florida. On the 1,155-student campus, students and staff members embraced one another and waited for details.

"It's kind of surreal," said Jacob Wiens, a 21-year-old senior. "It's not often you see a small college like ours on national TV."

Rory Stauber, a United Methodist pastor, spent the day advising Bluffton students to hold on to their faith. "That's about all you can do right now," he said.

Authorities said 33 players and coaches were aboard a private team charter heading south on Interstate 75 in an HOV lane when the driver, apparently mistaken, nosed left onto an exit ramp. The ramp rose upward to a wide elevated road and a T-junction marked by a stop sign.

Unable to stop, the bus roared across the road, crashed through a guardrail and dropped to the interstate below, landing on a pickup truck and turning onto its side. The pickup's driver, who floored his gas pedal when he saw the plunging bus, was unhurt.

"I woke up as the bus hit the overpass's wall. I just looked out and saw the road coming up after me," freshman A.J. Ramthun told reporters in Atlanta. Smelling gasoline, the team catcher tapped him on the shoulder and told him to hurry from the bus. "I heard some guys crying, 'I'm stuck. I'm stuck,' " said Ramthun, 18. "It was just chaos."

Ramthun, his collarbone broken, his face, ears and a finger badly cut, worried about his brother, pinned under the bus. As rescue vehicles arrived, members of the team who were not badly hurt made way for friends with more severe injuries.

"I'm one of the lucky ones. I'm going to heal. The cuts and bruises are going to go away," said Ramthun, melting into tears at times as he imagined facing his more badly wounded teammates: "I'm sorry, while I'm standing, there's not a lot you can do."

Harder, who had planned to attend the Saturday doubleheader against Eastern Mennonite, said students and staff "can only begin to imagine" how the tragedy will play out. But he emphasized the closeness of the Bluffton community. "There is something to build on," he said, "in a situation like this."

Slevin reported from Chicago; Chatman is a special correspondent. Staff writer Steven A. Holmes in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company