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8 Die In I-40 Tenn. Bus Crash; 6 From Statesville Church

A bus returning to a Statesville church from a religious festival blew a tire on Interstate 40 Wednesday, triggering a fiery wreck east of Knoxville, Tenn., that killed eight people, including six church members.

Eighteen members of Front Street Baptist Church had attended the 17th annual Fall Jubilee in Gatlinburg, Tenn. – a three-day gathering of thousands of “mature and senior believers,” according to its website.

The people on the bus were part of the church’s Young at Heart Seniors Ministry, a tight-knit group that frequently traveled together.

In Statesville, church members gathered at Front Street Baptist as the news spread. Wednesday night’s scheduled prayer gathering turned instead to grief.

Victims had not been identified, and some were waiting for news of their loved ones. Members hugged one another in the parking lot, then went into the sanctuary through a rear entrance.

“We’re all shaken,” George Stadtfeld told reporters outside his church. “As bad as it is, they’re all Christians, and I know where they’re at. I’ll join them later.”

The wreck happened around 2 p.m. about 40 miles from Knoxville, said Dalya Qualls, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Safety. The bus was headed east when the left front tire blew out. The bus crossed the median, clipped a Chevrolet Tahoe headed in the opposite direction and then slammed into a tractor-trailer.

The tractor-trailer burst into flames, Qualls said. The bus overturned, shattering windows and crumpling sheet metal. Aerial photographs from the scene show pieces of vehicles strewn across long sections of the highway.

The cab of the tractor-trailer was incinerated by the ensuing fire.

In addition to the fatalities on the bus, one person in the tractor-trailer and a person in the SUV were killed. Four people were transported by helicopter to nearby hospitals. Another eight were transported by ambulances.

Authorities in Tennessee hadn’t released the names of the dead and injured by late Wednesday.

Small-town church stunned

A man who identified himself as a deacon at Front Street Baptist described it as a “small-town church” where no more than 350 people worship on Sundays.

According to a church bulletin, the trip to the Fall Jubilee began on Sunday and cost $180. The event included several nationally known gospel acts, including the Perrys and Guy Penrod and sermons from prominent Baptists.

On Wednesday night, event organizers had posted a message about the wreck on the event’s website: “Our thoughts are with our friends at Front Street Baptist Church in their tragic loss. Pastor Johnny Hunt, the congregation at First Baptist Church Woodstock, and all the Jubilee team have you in our prayers.”

In Statesville, George Stadtfeld said his wife, Elaine, had been on the trip but didn’t travel on the bus.

“It’s something the church looks forward to each year, to go to the gospel jubilee,” said Stadtfeld, a 38-year Duke Energy employee.

Jerry Wright, 71, said his older brother John and his sister-in-law Beverly were on the trip.

“They go to church every day,” Jerry Wright said. “He’s real religious. You can’t ask for no better of a person.”

John Wright, 73, was one of several drivers who took shifts driving the bus on trips, his brother said. It was unclear if John Wright drove on the trip to Gatlinburg or who was driving when the bus crashed.

Jerry Wright said he last spoke to his brother on Wednesday morning, a brief conversation about a family member who was ill. But after the crash, Jerry Wright said he couldn’t make contact.

“He might be hurt. I hope he’s alright. I’m hoping for the best, but I don't know. ... All his phone does is keep ringing and ringing.” The Associated Press contributed to this report.