The 30 Chicago-area passengers who were en route to Tunica, Miss, when their tour bus overturned off Interstate 55 near Marion, Arkansas early Saturday morning were all hoping to get lucky during a casino weekend in the Mississippi resort town.
By Sunday -- with 14 dead, several survivors of the catastrophic and still unexplained accident in critical care in The Regional Medical Center of Memphis, and other victims convalescing elsewhere -- hope was focused on issues of survival and recovery.
John Edward Coney of McComb, Mississippi -- whose mother, Maxie Lyons, was among the dead and whose father, Billy Joe Lyons was being cared for at The Med -- was doing his best to be philosophical. I was brought up not to question Gods will, but at a time like this, you have to wonder why, he said.
In the hospitals second-floor Critical Care waiting room, other relatives -- some from Chicago, some from Memphis and other parts of the Mid-South -- were being served sandwiches by a solicitous hospital worker as they waited for news of their loved ones, some of them even then undergoing surgery.
Coney said his parents had been coming south with a group of friends like this two or three times a year, for five or ten years. He had looked forward to a reunion and had planned to get together with his parents on Sunday. He was watching TV on Saturday morning when the first news bulletin was flashed about a serious bus accident in the Memphis area involving Chicagoans.
I knew it was their bus. So I came up to Memphis a day early and went right to the Med, Coney said. He learned there that his mother had died and made another pilgrimage over to Roller Citizens Funeral Home in West Memphis, where the bodies of the 14 deceased lay, ready for identification by Coney and other relatives and, said funeral director Mike Hanson, shipment, as soon as its arranged, to where their funerals will take place.
In most cases, that will be back to Chicago, where the latest pilgrimage by this close circle of longtime friends, mostly elderly and retired, had begun at 8:30 p.m. on Friday evening. The group had boarded a bus belonging to Walters Charter and Tours, owned by Roosevelt Walters of Chicago, a member of a socially prominent South Side family, according to one of the Chicagoans in Memphis for the aftermath.
Walters brother, Hubert Walters, was the bus driver, and his wife, Maureen Walters, was a passenger. Neither would survive.
By noon on Saturday, a team of investigators -- 13 in all, including both National Transportation Safety Board staffers and Arkansas State police personnel -- were busily sifting through the scene where that all-night journey had come to a premature and unexpected end, at 5 a.m. of a still-dark, drizzly Saturday.
A trail of miniature red pennants paralleled a set of wheel tracks, both leading into a depressed ditch area from the junction of I-55 and exit 23A and indicating the path of the 1988-vintage model as it plunged off the road.
One of the investigators pointed to a sudden declivity containing a storm culvert and suggested that the bus might have experienced its fatal lurch at that point, with evidence suggesting that the vehicle had tilted and hit the ground hard on the drivers side, beginning a tear which separated the roof and causing a boomerang that sent the vehicle hurtling.
It eventually landed upside down in a field, with the roof parted completely on one side and held to the bus only by posts on the other side. It was like if you were using a can-opener on a can but left the lid attached on one side, and it overturned, Marion Fire Department chief Woody Wheeless had explained at a morning press conference at the Holiday Inn in West Memphis.
Wheeless had supervised the evacuation of passengers, both the living and the dead -- a task that involved, at one time or another, at least a hundred personnel from various agencies, he said. Only one of the passengers, a survivor, was still under the overturned bus. The others were strewn about in the grass or trapped under the roof, which was elevated by special air balloons and other emergency devices to permit the passengers extrication.
It was very quiet. There was not much noise at all, Wheeless said.
Also represented at the Saturday morning press briefing were personnel from the NTSB, the Arkansas State Police, the Arkansas Highway Police, and the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department. Gary van Etten of Los Angeles was there as spokesman and team leader of the large NTSB contingent. Both he and ASP spokesman Bill Sadler advised reporters that initial determinations as to the cause of the accident might not be made for several days -- maybe even a week, said Sadler.
Van Ettens group of investigators was divided, he said, into six components: (1) a vehicle group to investigate mechanical conditions; (2) a motor carrier group to look into factors regarding the company (Walters Charter and Tours, in this case); (3) a human performance group; (4) a survival factors group, gauging the crash-worthiness of the vehicle and the quality of local emergency response, among other factors; (5) a highway group to examine the geometry of the driving surface; and (6) an image documentation group, charged with producing a computer-generated map of the scene.
Each one of the groups would make a factual report within about three months, he said, cautioning that the whole investigation could last for a year or even two years. At some point, after being reviewed by a management group, the report would come before the five-member presidentially-appointed NTSB panel itself for possible action
Meanwhile, relatives were looking for answers, too -- and more quickly. Hope remained alive for the family members of the seven patients at The Med and the eight at other hospitals -- three at Methodist Central in Memphis, three at the University of Arkansas Medical Center at Little Rock, and two at St. Bernards Hospital of Jonesboro, Arkansas. (One patient had actually been released from Crittenden Memorial Hospital of West Memphis on Saturday.)
In the confusion of events on Saturday, the ASP had given out a larger number of passengers than had actually been on board. David Pike, a local law-enforcement chaplain assisting the investigation, emphasized to reporters Saturday that we dont want to make an error through identification and that I.D.s were systematically checked with the Chicago Police Department and against the bus companys manifest. Even so, the complete list of 30 released at Saturday mornings press briefing turned out not to be infallible. One of those listed as deceased was Sandra Sandy Clark.
But John Edward Coney, who was mourning his mother and preparing to keep a vigil for his father, had just seen Ms. Clark, a family friend, in an adjacent patient bed at The Med while he was visiting at his fathers bedside. She was alive, not dead like they said. That gives me hope that some miracles can still come of this, Coney said.