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Bluffton bus crash survivors recall pre-dawn terror

3/3/2007

ATLANTA -- Tony Moore and his college baseball teammates
were jolted awake when their bus slammed against a concrete barrier
and dropped off an overpass. At least two students were trapped,
one player had already died and diesel fuel was leaking, survivors
and family members said.

It would be hours before the team, and those left behind at
their tight-knit Ohio campus, would know the toll: four Bluffton
University teammates dead, plus the driver and his wife.
Twenty-nine were injured, although only eight remained hospitalized
on Saturday evening. Five were in serious or critical condition,
and the rest were in fair or stable condition.

"We were trying to get everybody loose off [the bus]. Everybody was still in shock."
-- Bluffton baseball player Tony Moore

Moore said he fell asleep on the bus floor after a late night of
watching movies, listening to music and chatting about the eagerly
anticipated spring training.

The next thing the 21-year-old junior remembers is hitting the
rail on an Atlanta interstate overpass early Friday, rolling around
and "the final slam in the ground."

The bus was traveling to Florida for the team's annual spring
training trip when the driver apparently mistook an exit ramp for a
lane and went off the side of an overpass spanning Interstate 75.

The National Transportation Safety Board said it wasn't clear
why the driver went on the ramp. There were tire marks, but it
wasn't clear when the driver realized his mistake and tried to
correct it.

Numerous crashes have happened at that uncommon left-side, HOV
exit, board member Kitty Higgins said Saturday. No signs are
visible that tell drivers to slow down for the ramp that ends at a
T-intersection on the overpass, she said.

Moore was trapped between bus seats until his teammates pulled
him out. For a long moment, they stood looking at each other in the
pre-dawn darkness inside the bus that had fallen 30 feet.

The legs of Mike Ramthun and Chris Bauman were pinned beneath
the bus. Moore and other teammates tried to calm them, telling them
help would be on the way. They got the roof escape hatch open and
stumbled out on the freeway.

"We were trying to get everybody loose off," Moore said.
"Everybody was still in shock."

Timothy Kay, a pitcher, and others tried to lift the bus and
pull the pinned players out.

"They were very worried about all the diesel fuel on the
ground," Ed Kay said of his son. Rescue teams later freed the
pair.

Moore said he looked up and saw some students wearing purple --
the school color of the Mennonite-affiliated university -- on the
overpass. Four people, including his brother Jason, a 23-year-old
assistant coach, had been thrown from the bus when it crashed into
a concrete wall on the overpass.

Killed were two freshman, Scott Harmon and Cody Holp, and two
sophomores, Tyler Williams and David Betts. The driver and his
wife, Jerome and Jean Niemeyer, also died.

Sophomore outfielder Allen Slabaugh also was thrown onto the
overpass; he was sleeping four rows from the front of the bus,
sitting next to Betts. He found himself on top of the bridge with
scratches and scrapes on his back and knees. He has no memory of
what happened, said his mother, Kelly Slabaugh of Dalton, Ohio.

"He was sleeping in his seat and woke up on the bridge," she
said.

A.J. Ramthun woke up in his window seat to see the ground come
up at him as the bus was falling. It was only when his seriously
injured coach grabbed his arm afterward that he realized his
collarbone was broken.

"We looked, and thought, 'How did we survive that?"' Ramthun
said.