(WBIR - Jefferson County) In what officials are calling a "horrific event," a church bus from North Carolina was involved in a fiery crash on I-40 Wednesday afternoon that killed at least eight people and injured 14.
According to a preliminary report from the Tennessee Highway Patrol, six of those killed were passengers on the bus, one was in the tractor trailer, and one in an SUV.
"We hope and pray that there will be no more," said THP Spokesperson Sgt. Bill Miller. He added that the agency's thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.
UT Medical Center said they have are treating all 14 injured in the crash. As of 10:45 p.m., the hospital reported that two of them were in critical condition, seven were in serious condition, and five were in stable condition.
THP says a passenger bus was traveling eastbound on I-40 near mile marker 423 when, according to their preliminary investigation, its left front tire blew out. The driver lost control and the bus crossed the median and crashed into a tractor trailer and clipped a Tahoe SUV that was heading westbound. They say the tractor trailer immediately caught fire and the bus overturned. The accident happened around 2 p.m.
Within five minutes, the first emergency crews from Jefferson County arrived, and began helping the victims while sending out the call for more help.
Brad Phillips, EMA director of Jefferson County, said the local rescue squad extricated several passengers from the bus, which was very close to the burning tractor-trailer. He could not say how many people had to be rescued, but said most of them were out within 15 minutes of the squad's arrival. He could not confirm the ages of any of the victims, but said there were no minors involved.
The rescue crews did a "valiant" job, according to Phillips, who asked people to pray for the victims of the crash, their families, and the first responders.
An EMS official told 10News 20 ambulances and five helicopters responded from multiple counties, including Knox, Sevier, Jefferson, Hamblen, and Grainger Counties.
The Tennessee Highway Patrol is the lead investigating agency on the accident. Their Critical Incident Response Teams (CIRT) have special training and equipment to respond to and reconstruct fatal accidents.
"It takes a lot to reconstruct that. Fall Branch has a team, Knoxville has a team and we'll help each other with that. As far as resources, we've sent a lot of our troopers up there to help them, and we'll help each other out," said THP Lt. Don Boshears.
CIRT teams from Knoxville, Nashville, and the Fall Branch Districts were on the scene Wednesday night, according to Sgt. Miller.
No names of the victims have been released, and Sgt. Miller said no family notifications have been made. The fatalities will be taken to the UT forensic center to be identified.
The bus was from Front Street Baptist Church in Statesville, North Carolina. Dionne Stutts from the church confirmed the bus was on its way back from an event called Fall Jubilee in Gatlinburg. She says the group on board is called "The Young at Heart" and they're mostly ages 55 and up. They have several church members on the way to the scene.
The Red Cross is assisting the victims and their families. If you believe you have an immediate family member involved in the crash, you can call the Red Cross at 865-305-5716 for information.
Interstate 40 has been closed since the accident, and likely will be for a while. Drivers heading east will be detoured onto I-81, then to I-26 into North Carolina. Westbound traffic is being stopped at the Newport exit and taken on alternate routes.
"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." -- Statement from Fall Jubilee Conference