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8 elderly church members killed as bus, truck crash

Interstate 20 near Tallulah is closed to traffic Monday as emergency personnel work to clear debris from a wreck on the shoulder of the eastbound lanes after a church bus from Eldorado, Texas, rammed the back of a parked 18-wheeler loaded with cotton.(Jenny Sevcik The VIcksburg Post)

[10/14/03]TALLULAH Six people on a church-sponsored fall tour died instantly Monday, two others died in hospitals and seven others were hurt, one of them the driver who nodded off before their bus plowed into the rear of an 18-wheeler parked on the side of Interstate 20.

Kenneth J. Thomas, 66, said he fell asleep while driving 14 passengers, all senior citizens from Texas, said Louisiana State Police Trooper Julie Lewis.

The group had left Eldorado, Texas, Sunday for what was to be a leisurely ride across the South and up to Pennsylvania lasting 16 days.

Eldorado is about a 10-hour drive from Tallulah. The group overnighted in Shreveport. Thomas, a retired school teacher, was one of two people aboard licensed to drive the bus owned by First Baptist Church of Eldorado, Texas. He got behind the wheel for the day’s ride across Mississippi and Louisiana and into Alabama about three hours before the wreck. When he nodded, passengers shouted. He awoke, but the bus had veered and crashed into the 18-wheeler. It was loaded with cotton and was stopped on the roadside so the driver could make a mechanical check, Lewis said.

Thomas was cited by state police for careless driving, Lewis said. He remained in River Region Medical Center this morning.

A woman who asked not to be identified said she and her daughter, both employed at the Madison Parish Detention Center, arrived shortly after the wreck was reported around 11 a.m.

“It was just a horrific scene, dead people everywhere,” she said, standing next to a Tallulah Fire Department fire truck. “It was one of those things that you hear about happening somewhere else.”

Emergency crews responded from all across the region to the eastbound lanes of I-20 at mile marker 168. The injured were in hospitals in Rayville, Delhi, Vicksburg and Jackson.

The driver of the semi-truck, Edwards native Ernest Mixon, 69, was in the cab of his rig when the bus hit. The trailer was loaded with cotton bales and Mixon had just gotten back in the cab after sliding underneath the rig to inspect the brakes, Lewis said. He was not taken to a hospital, but was dazed and said he could not believe what had happened. “They just hit me so hard,” he said.

He remained at the scene more than two hours, walking around and shaking his head.

Along the sides of the bus, seats, sodas and ice chests were among the debris scattered on the ground. Louisiana State Troopers called a reconstruction team in the afternoon to help investigate the wreck.

Eastbound traffic on Interstate 20 was redirected to U.S. 80. Traffic was backed up for more than 2 1/2 hours.

The next event planned on the “senior ambassador tour” was a visit to the Mercedes-Benz plant in Tuscaloosa, Ala.. They were also going to Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and the Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg, Pa. The trip cost each person $960, an itinerary found in the bus showed.