Grief & prayer after Tenn. school bus tragedy

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (BP) -- When police chaplain and Southern Baptist pastor Anthony Baker arrived at the hospital hours after an elementary school bus accident killed five and injured 32 others, he picked up crayons and joined distraught children coloring scenes on paper.

Five students died and 32 others were injured when a school bus veered off the road and was impaled by a tree around 3:30 p.m. Nov. 21 in Chattanooga, Tenn.
WRCV TV Chattanooga screen capture
A school bus driver himself for the past 16 years, Baker was uniquely positioned to minister to those awaiting word on their loved ones at the T.C. Thompson campus of Erlanger Children's Hospital Nov. 21 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

"Sometimes when the world is falling apart, coloring makes you think we can put things together and make it look good," Baker told a sixth grade boy. "[The student] nodded his head, and so we sat down there and started coloring."

Coloring distracted the children who were worried after a bus carrying their friends from Woodmore Elementary School veered off a residential road, clipped a mailbox and utility pole, landed on its side and was impaled through its center by a tree around 3:30 p.m. Five children died at the scene -- including a kindergartener, a first grader and three fourth graders. Of the 32 taken to area hospitals, 12 were hospitalized -- six in intensive care -- and 20 were treated and released.

Baker, immediate past pastor of Riverside Baptist Church in Chattanooga, is one of many Southern Baptist leaders ministering to the tearful community after the one-vehicle accident, Hamilton County Baptist Association (HCBA) Director of Missions Dennis Culbreth told Baptist Press.

Southern Baptist pastor Anthony Baker engaged grieving children in artwork at Erlanger Children's Hospital after a bus accident killed five children and injured 32 others in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Photo by Anthony Baker
"All of the pastors I've talked to have just been brokenhearted about this, even if they don't know the families or children," Culbreth said. "It seems to be a time where churches are working together to see what we can do."

Mt. Canaan Baptist Church pastor Ternae Jordan said one of his members, whom he identified as Deborah, lost a fourth-grade grandchild in the accident, and other members lost relatives. He spent much of the night ministering to those grieving at the hospital, and to students and teachers at school this morning.

"I didn't realize that Deborah was involved until the latter part of the night because we were ministering to so many families," Jordan told BP Tuesday (Nov. 22). "It was a horrific scene at the hospital with all of the parents and families being told that their child did not survive. Last night was probably one of the worst scenes that you could ever expect, watching the pain and the hurt of family members."

He described Woodmore as a close-knit community, and said area pastors responded in great numbers after the tragedy.

"The body of Christ really showed up last night. There were pastors and prayer teams from throughout the community that were there serving and showing the love of Christ," Jordan said. "That's one of the most memorable things about last night."

Ridgedale Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tenn., hosted a community prayer service after a school bus accident that killed five and injured 32 others.
Photo by Steve Pearson
The HCBA has called pastors of its 107 congregations to meet Tuesday at 5 p.m. at New Monumental Baptist Church (National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc.), Culbreth said.

"I'll leave [the meeting] as the director of missions with a plan of action of how we can coordinate together to minister to these families and … work together and plan together the best plan of action for our churches," Culbreth said. "I've just sent an email out to our pastors and staff encouraging them to be there. I think this could be a way that our churches could have an impact on the community … to be salt and light."

Ridgedale Baptist Church, pastored by Doug Plumlee, hosted a community prayer service Tuesday at noon; a second prayer service is set for 6 p.m. Tuesday at New Monumental, pastored by Roderick L. Ware and located about a mile from Woodmore Elementary.

Among Southern Baptists participating in outreach are Bayside Baptist Church pastor Eric Stitts and Dallas Bay Baptist global outreach pastor Aaron Goccia.

The tragedy was reported nationwide. In Nashville, Tennessee Baptist Convention executive director Randy Davis expressed grief at the tragedy and encouraged Christians to pray for everyone impacted.

"I've been praying for them and encourage Tennessee Baptists and Southern Baptists to continue to pray for the children who are still injured in the hospital," Davis told BP. "I'm praying for pastors as they minister, and I'm praying for those families who don't have a church home that some Christian in some way can help them. This just reminds us how fleeting life is, and why it is so important for us to reach everyone with the Gospel, especially this youngest generation."

Baker also pointed out the mortality of life and the importance of having a personal relationship with Jesus before being faced with tragedy.

"No matter how long you live, you never live long enough. These children that died at 7 or 8 years old, they didn't live long enough. But when you're 90 and you die, somebody's always wishing you'd lived a little longer," Baker said. "You never live long enough, and so you have to take advantage of whatever you're given by God, and cherish it no matter how long you're given. Life is precious and you just cannot take it for granted, even in the safest of conditions."

Baker was among several chaplains who prayed with hospital employees and those grieving in waiting rooms, many of whom had not yet learned of their children's fate. Many of the families were hopeless, angry and distraught, he said.

"We want them to understand [salvation] before things like this happen," he said. "I want them to have faith in Christ. I want them to know that even though this life is over, they [can] have hope of another [in Christ]."

Baker took the tragedy personally, he said.

"While at the same time that I'm trying to comfort people, I'm as a bus driver trying to reassure people that … school buses are safe and the bus drivers do care," he said. "I care about my children. I would die for my kids. When I'm on my bus, I don't care who those kids are; they're my children. I take it very personally what happens to those kids."

Driving his bus this morning, the first thing on his mind was safety, Baker told BP. He's in charge of 60–70 children on his normal routes, including elementary and high school students.

Chattanooga police charged 24-year-old Johnthony Walker, employed by Durham School Services and the driver of the wrecked bus, with five counts of vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and reckless driving. The names of the victims had not been released.

Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' general assignment writer/editor. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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