By Christopher Sherman
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
A North Texas community college brought in counsellors to comfort grieving students Saturday and cancelled athletic competitions after four women’s softball players were killed when an 18-wheel truck veered into oncoming traffic on a major interstate highway and crashed into the side of their team bus.
The collision near Davis, Oklahoma late Friday badly damaged the driver’s side of the North Central Texas College team bus driven by a coach with 15 players aboard as they returned from a scrimmage against Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, Oklahoma.
In addition to the deaths, two team members remained in hospitals Saturday, one in critical condition. The other nine players were treated and released, along with the coach.
“This is the most traumatic event that NCTC has had in its 90 years of history,” North Central Texas College President Brent Wallace said at an emotional news conference Saturday in Gainesville, Texas, about 60 miles south of the crash site on Interstate 35.
The four players killed were identified by the Oklahoma Highway Patrol as Meagan Richardson, 19, Brooke Deckard, 20, Katelynn Woodlee, 18, and Jaiden Pelton 20. The women all were from small North Texas towns near the campus.
Three of the players died at the scene and a fourth died at a hospital in nearby Sulphur, Oklahoma Highway Patrol Capt. Ronnie Hampton said.
Oklahoma University Medical Center clinical co-ordinator Darina Shellman said 18-year-old Bailey Buchanan was in critical condition Saturday. Kelly Wells, spokeswoman for Norman Regional Hospital, said 19-year-old Rachel Hitt was listed in fair condition.
The tragedy shocked the close-knit Texas community college of about 10,000 students. Rich Raymond, father of freshman player Emily Kuser, who survived the crash, said many of the girls had been playing together on regional softball travel teams since they were six or seven years old.
“It’s just an amazing family of girls and athletes and coaches,” Raymond said. “Just such a tight community. And even if your girl isn’t going to the school there’s a lot of pain right now.”
It was not clear why the northbound 18-wheel tractor-trailer lurched across the median into the southbound lanes. Police said they would investigate the accident as if it were a homicide.
Highway Patrol identified the driver as Russell Staley, 53, of Saginaw, Texas. He was treated in hospital and released. Capt. George Brown, spokesman for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, said there are no charges pending Saturday against Staley.
The college’s police chief James Fitch described the crash scene as “chaos.” He said 11 ambulances and several helicopters responded.
The front end of the team bus was virtually untouched, but the sides of the vehicle were heavily damaged. The initial report listed the weather as clear and the highway as dry at the time of the crash.
Hampton said the truck kept going and went off the side of the road after it hit the bus.
“It took about an hour before we found the semi,” he said. I-35 is a major trucking artery running between Oklahoma City and Dallas. Its lanes reopened early Saturday morning.
The National Transportation Safety Board said Saturday that it was sending a team of investigators to the site and scheduled a news conference for later Saturday afternoon.
Hampton said the Highway Patrol’s investigation would take several weeks.
“Right now, it’s being investigated like a homicide,” Hampton said, adding that both drivers will undergo standard toxicology tests. Hampton said details of the crash were still not known but “something happened to cause (the semitrailer driver) to depart the roadway and impact the other vehicle.”
A posting on the North Central Texas College Facebook page reads: “We ask for your prayers at this time for our softball team.” The school scheduled a prayer vigil on campus for Sunday evening.