Bluffton bus crash survivors, parents return home

Updated: March 5, 2007, 12:35 AM ET
Associated Press

BLUFFTON, Ohio -- Players on Bluffton University's baseball team and their parents returned home Sunday, two days after a bus plunged off a roadway in Georgia and claimed the lives of four of their teammates and two others.

The father of deceased player David Betts wore the baseball cap his son had on the morning of the crash when he stepped off a charter flight at Toledo Express Airport. Since the accident, he said, he has spent a lot of time telling the players who came away with only minor injuries that "it was OK that they survived."

"He died doing what he loved and who he enjoyed being with," Jon Betts said. "That's all that is important to us."

About 30 people walked off the plane -- one player limping, another with his arm in a sling -- and greeted those waiting on the tarmac with hugs. A hearse drove to the back of the plane to transport two players' bodies.

Killed in Friday's crash were sophomore outfielder Tyler Williams of Lima; Scott Harmon, a freshman from Lima; and Cody Holp, a freshman from Arcanum. The driver and his wife, Jerome and Jean Niemeyer, also died.

The team from the Mennonite-affiliated university was traveling to its annual spring training in Florida when the charter bus crashed before daybreak.

Investigators said the driver apparently mistook an exit ramp for a regular lane, and the bus crashed into a barrier at a T-shaped intersection and plummeted off the overpass onto the highway below.

On Sunday, investigators interviewed two players and a coach who were recovering from injuries.

One player said they had seen nothing unusual up until the time of the accident, and the driver was not talking on a cell phone or radio, said Kitty Higgins, who is leading the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation.

There are tire marks at the scene, but they do not suggest the driver slammed on his brakes, Higgins said. It appeared that he realized his mistake, she said, and the bus showed no mechanical problems.

Georgia transportation officials also said Sunday they had no immediate plans to close or add safety signs to the highway exit ramp where the bus crashed.

The state Department of Transportation wants to see recommendations from the NTSB before adding any new safety devices such as signs or stoplights to the Interstate 75 ramp, spokesman David Spear said.

"We won't wait until their final published report. If during the course of their conversations it might make this better, we're going to act on it," he said.

There are two "Prepare to Stop" signs on the ramp, which exits off the left lane, and the same words are painted on the ramp itself, Spear said. The NTSB has said that the accident site has had numerous crashes and can be difficult for drivers to navigate.

Fred Hanscom, director of independent consulting group Transportation Research Corp., said the ramp could have larger signs, a stoplight at the top or pavement grooves that make a noise to warn drivers to slow down.

"The fact that this ramp went almost parallel with the main line [of the interstate] was a confusing factor," Hanscom said. "Drivers normally expect ramps to go to the right and not the left."

The 1,200-student school will be closed this week for spring break. The team had been on an annual trip to a Florida tournament when the accident occurred.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press