DANDRIDGE, Tenn. (AP) — For months, a tight-knit group of seniors at a North Carolina church had been looking forward to the road trip.
It was a tradition for members of the Young at Heart Ministry to attend the annual Fall Jubilee in Gatlinburg, Tenn., an event featuring gospel singers and speakers. The Front Street Baptist Church's website described the gathering as "three days of singing, laughing and preaching" for "mature and senior believers."
But on the way back to Statesville, N.C., on Wednesday, the bus carrying the church group blew a tire, veered across a highway median and crashed into a sport utility vehicle and tractor-trailer in a fiery wreck that killed eight people.
Fourteen other people were hurt in the accident in northeastern Tennessee, including two who were in critical condition.
Church members on Wednesday night were waiting for more details. None of the victims have been identified.
"This is hard," said Jerry Wright, whose 73-year-old brother, John, and his wife were on the bus. "You try not to think the worst, but it gets to you."
He believes his brother may have been driving the church bus because he had done so in the past.
"If he was driving, it's going to be bad," he said. "I've been trying to ring them. I've been calling their phone, but it keeps ringing and ringing and ringing."
Inside the Statesville church, people were crying and hugging each other. One woman whispered, "It's going to be all right" while hugging another woman. A memorial service was held Wednesday evening. Police cordoned off the church to prevent reporters from talking to those who attended.
"There was a very long night for all of us," Front Street Baptist associate pastor Rick Cruz said Thursday morning.