INDIANAPOLIS – A bus carrying teenagers from a youth camp in northern Michigan was just minutes from home when it came speeding off an Indianapolis interstate, struck a retaining wall and flipped on its side.
The accident killed three people and injured dozens Saturday afternoon. The dead included the church youth pastor and his wife, who was pregnant. Their son, 2, survived and has been released from a hospital.
Now investigators are working to determine what caused the accident, which happened after a 365-mile journey. The bus was a mile from its destination, the Colonial Hills Baptist Church.
At the church, parents were waiting to pick up their children, who had attended a weeklong camp filled with prayer, zip lines and basketball when another bus carrying younger campers pulled in with passengers screaming.
Jeff Leffew, 44, of Fishers, had sent four daughters to Camp CoBeAc, near Prudenville, Mich. Just one was on the bus that pulled into the parking lot. He raced to the crash site, in northern Indianapolis. He found was a surreal scene, with clothing and other items strewn about and windows missing from the bus.
"You're just praying that it's not as bad as it looks," said Leffew, a deacon at the church.
Leffew's daughters escaped with bumps and bruises, but others weren't so fortunate. Twenty-six people were taken to area hospitals, including at least one teenager in critical condition.
"They were not that far from home. ... That only adds to the tragedy," Indianapolis Public Safety Director Troy Riggs said at the crash scene.
He said there was no indication that the driver had a medical emergency.
Did brakes fail?
WTHR-TV reported the bus driver told witnesses his brakes failed. Indianapolis Fire Department investigators have not determined whether the church-owned bus had mechanical issues.
Witnesses to the crash described a horrifying scene.
Duane Lloyd told WTHR that he heard a loud noise behind him as he was traveling near the intersection and saw the crash around 4:15 p.m., about the time youth pastor Chad Phelps had tweeted that the group expected to arrive at the church.
"I heard a skid. I looked back. I see this bus in the air and people falling out of the bus," Lloyd said. "I could have gone my whole life without seeing that."
He said people approached and tried to help. "People were literally trying to lift the bus. You just try to do what you can do."
Sasha Sample, 28, told The Indianapolis Star some victims were lying in the road, while others were able to limp to the side.
"Everybody had boils and scrapes on them," she said. "People were trying to climb from under the bus."
Sample, a nurse, said she borrowed a belt to make a tourniquet for the bus driver's arm but wasn't able to help the man next to him, who was already dead.
"I couldn't do anything for him," Sample said. "So you triage. You help those you can."
Fire officials said 37 people were on the bus and that the injured included children and adults.
Nine teenagers were taken to IU Health Methodist Hospital, including one in critical condition. Three of those were treated and released, hospital spokeswoman Sally Winter said. She said 10, including nine teenagers and a toddler, were taken to Riley Hospital for Children. Seven of those teenagers were treated and released, Winter said.
Many of the patients had head, arm and leg injuries, fire officials said.
Sunday morning, Leffew said at a news conference outside of Colonial Hills Baptist Church that the church youth pastor, Chad Phelps and his wife, Courtney Phelps, died in the accident.
He said Chad Phelps is the son of the church's main pastor, Charles Phelps. Courtney Phelps was pregnant and due next month.
The third person who died was Tonya Weindorf, a mother of five. She was a chaperone on the trip.
The Phelps' almost 2-year-old son, Chase, has been released from the hospital.
Earlier, families of the bus passengers gathered at the church Saturday evening to comfort one another and pray.
Mayor Greg Ballard described many as "remarkably positive" despite their sorrow but said there will be difficult days ahead.
"Some of the teenagers are hurting pretty bad and you can see that in their faces," he said.
Leffew agreed, saying his daughters and other teens on the bus "saw some difficult things" that they'd never had to experience before.
"Their biggest pain," he said, "is what they saw."