One of the surviving members of the Bluffton University baseball team recalled today how he saw "the road coming toward me" as the bus he and his teammates were riding in plummeted off of an Atlanta overpass in a predawn accident that killed six people and injured 29 others.
"I was one of the lucky ones. My collarbone was broken, I got some stitches in my ears and the corneas of both my eyes, my finger was ripped to the bone," said 18-year-old A.J. Rathman, a freshman at the Bluffton, Ohio, school, who was riding a chartered bus to his baseball team's annual spring training session.
Thirty-three people, including the coaching staff from the Mennonite-affiliated school 50 miles southeast of Toledo, were on the bus when it plunged off Interstate 75 in Atlanta and landed on a pickup truck traveling below, according to Atlanta police spokesman Joe Cobb.
Among those killed were the bus driver, his wife and four students; their names have yet to be released. The driver of the pickup truck was not injured.
The accident happened at around 6 a.m., when the majority of students were asleep, Rathman said. He woke up when the bus hit the wall of the overpass.
"I saw the road coming toward me," he said.
Rathman, who was seated on the left-hand side of the bus by the window -- the side that the bus landed on -- had a number of cuts all over his face from the shattered glass.
He said his older brother, Michael, was trapped underneath the bus and injured his hip. "He might not recover," Rathman said, sobbing.
He said the accident scene was orderly, with the team members helping each other.
One of the coaches helped him to get out of the bus. "He told me we had to get out, because there was gas everywhere," Rathman recalled.
A spokesman for the Atlanta Fire Department said 55 firefighters responded to the scene. It took an hour to extricate the players from the bus.
The students were being examined for broken bones and a few reportedly suffered head injuries and internal injuries, said Dr. Leon Haley of Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. Grady Memorial took 19 of the injured, while others were sent to Piedmont Memorial Hospital and Atlanta Medical Center in Atlanta.
After he was treated, Rathman was released from Piedmont.
An Academic Community in Pain
Bluffton University President James Harder told reporters that the small community of 1,150 students was in mourning.
"A few minutes ago in this auditorium, a gathering together of the Bluffton community came together. Every seat was filled. … This is deeply impacting all of our students and faculty and staff. We know these people on a first-name basis," he said.
He has canceled classes and said he has requested that the community remain on campus during spring break, which starts tomorrow.
Harder said the team was making its annual trip to Sarasota, Fla. The team was scheduled to play its first game of the season there as part of a double-header Saturday morning.
Harder has called off all athletic activities while the school handles the crisis. The school's athletic director and two other officials were en route to Atlanta.
The National Transportation and Safety Board has started an investigation of the accident.
"We will be looking at all aspects of this investigation -- the vehicle, driver, drug and alcohol, fatigue, environmental, highway engineering," said Chris Vogley, one of the NTSB investigators.
Investigators confirmed that there is a type of "black box" computer system onboard that will help them determine if the bus was speeding or if there were any other driving irregularities onboard.
Harder said that it was common for the school to use chartered buses.
The vehicle was owned and operated by the Executive Coach Luxury Travel Co., which is based in Georgia. The firm has a strong safety record, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Over the past two years, the company had no out-of-service violations on 20 vehicle inspections.
Support for the Victims
Offers of help have come pouring in, the school says.
"I have received, and this institution has received, offers of help from across the country," said Harder.
AirTran is offering free flights to family members of the injured students.
The message boards on the Buffton community Web site are filled with offers of help and accommodation for family members of those injured in Atlanta.
Jane Burdette, a native of Atlanta, went on to the Bluffton Web site after hearing about the accident.
"I'm a mom, and I just thought, what if those were my children," Burdette said.
She left her name with the chaplain's office at Grady Memorial Hospital, offering a place where family members could stay.
Burdette said that many people have gone on local Christian radio stations to offer help, too.