‘Hard to comprehend’: Fatal Uvalde crash rattles New Braunfels church

6:15 p.m Thursday, March 30, 2017 Local
The First Baptist Church of New Braunfels had a somber feel Thursday as members mourned the loss of 13 church members who were killed in a traffic crash on their way home from a retreat in Uvalde County.

A crush of black skid marks. A curled-up fragment of a women’s gold watchband. A beaten-up black boot. A litter of lavender medical latex gloves and emptied water bottles.

These are the remaining marks of a devastating crash in Uvalde County that has shaken a church community in New Braunfels after 13 members of the congregation died on their way home from a retreat filled with joy, worship and song.

Texas Department of Public Safety investigators are still trying to determine why the driver of a white, dually pickup, 20-year-old Jack Dillon Young, swerved into oncoming traffic on U.S. 83 and collided head-on with a bus carrying congregants from the First Baptist Church of New Braunfels.

The sole surviving rider on the bus, 64-year-old Rose Mary Harris of New Braunfels, was airlifted Wednesday to San Antonio Military Medical Center and remained in critical condition Thursday. Young also survived the crash and was at University Hospital in San Antonio in stable condition, DPS spokesman Lt. Johnny Hernandez said.

DPS investigators are looking into phone calls from drivers who reported a white pickup driving erratically on U.S. 83 before the crash, Hernandez said. Federal investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board have also joined the case, he said.

In this corner of God’s country, where the ranching plains of South Texas first give way to the Hill Country, where the Frio River has long lent refreshment and redemption to the pioneer and the pilgrim, nothing signaled the clash of peacefulness and horror that took place here Wednesday like the mingling sounds of the warblers’ melody and the rumble of hefty pickups.

Baptists have camped in these parts for at least a century, dunking themselves in the Frio to mark their rededication to their faith. But on Thursday at Alto Frio, the sprawling religious camp that had hosted the First Baptist Church of New Braunfels the first half of the week, staffers were subdued, their eyes red-rimmed.

Only a day earlier, the latest church retreat — 65 people from the New Braunfels church had come for their annual senior adult gathering — had ended with a celebratory burst of hymns.

“We were up there for three days, and we had a wonderful time, just wonderful,” said Ruth Pharis, a member of First Baptist Church for roughly 15 years who oversees the church’s puppet ministry and sings with the choir.

That Wednesday morning, Pharis had been singing alongside many of those who would die a few hours later.

“I stood next to one of the girls that goes to Oakwood Church, but she comes and sings in our senior choir. Her name is Addie Schmeltekopf,” Pharis said. “We were just praising God yesterday morning and having the greatest time, and now she’s gone. It’s just hard to comprehend it, I guess. And yet I know that she’s praising God, and she’s at his throne right now.”

Edwin Pharis, Ruth’s husband, said most people on the bus were widows or widowers. The bus could only hold 14 people, and many of the other church members who attended the retreat had driven their own cars to the event.

After it was over, Ruth and Edwin Pharis loaded up their SUV and headed back to New Braunfels on Texas 46, but the bus went the other way. She said the crash probably happened a few minutes after they had all left Alto Frio.

She said she didn’t even know anything bad had happened until she got back and got a phone call from a friend asking if the bus that had been hit belonged to her church.

“We dashed up here to the church as fast as we could, and didn’t know for hours how many had been killed or anything, and it turns out all of them had been killed,” she said. “It’s just hard to know that you were singing with them that morning and they’re in heaven tonight, you know? It just hits you so hard. You can’t comprehend that many people gone at one time.”

A few hours after the crash, the church was full of people talking, praying and trying to grasp the magnitude of the loss.

Now that authorities have identified all of the victims, faith and community will be more important than ever, church members said.

“You’re going to see all these people in this church will be coming and helping with all the work and all that’s going to need to be done,” Edwin Pharis said. “We’re looking at a lot of funerals this next week.”

The New Braunfels group was composed of a “special group of people” that had undertaken “faithful service,” Alto Frio, the Baptist encampment — which has a series of worship centers, cabins and basketball and volleyball courts beside the banks of the river — said in a statement of grief.

Farther north on U.S. 83 in Leakey, a town of less than 450 people, you could hear people chatting about Young at the library or at the Mill Creek Cafe, only a mile or two from the Baptist encampment.

Nineteen-year-old Haley Wheatley, a waitress at the cafe, said he was a “fun-loving, easygoing guy.” Only a few days ago they had watched the Western “The Magnificent Seven” with friends, and he cracked jokes about the movie along with everyone else, she said.

The town is left groping for answers as it tries to reconcile the tragic crash with the young man they know, she said: “Everyone knows everyone in this town. It’s hard for us to imagine he was the cause of the accident.”

The four-mile stretch of U.S. 83 from Garner State Park to Concan has seen more than 15 crashes a year between 2010 and 2016, but just one fatal car crash in that time. Five other wrecks during that time caused “incapacitating injuries,” according to Texas Department of Transportation statistics.

The winding section between FM 1050 on the north and Texas 127, aside from those six serious accidents, had 28 collisions that caused lesser injuries and 75 that had no injuries reported during that same time period.

Until Wednesday’s terrible incident, U.S. 83 between those two intersecting roads had seen no accidents of any kind this year, according to TxDOT.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Pastor Brad McLean of the First Baptist Church of New Braunfels asked for continued prayers and support for both the members of the congregation who were killed or hurt, and for the family of the man behind the wheel of the pickup that collided with the bus.

“That family is hurting,” McLean said. “I encourage that we show grace to them, we pray for them and show love for them as they work through a very difficult time as well.”

McLean said the people who died were individuals whose faces he saw on a weekly basis. They were people he had dinner with, laughed with, cried with and worshipped with.

“They were part of our church family, so they will be deeply missed,” he said.

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