SECTION: State and Regional
LENGTH: 719 words
DATELINE: ELDORADO, Texas
This grieving West Texas town will overflow with tears Friday as seven of the eight senior citizens killed in a church bus crash are laid to rest.
Three of the five funerals set for Friday – including combined services for two married couples – will be at the First Baptist Church. Five of those killed in the bus wreck in Louisiana on Monday attended the church.
“It’s just going to be beyond words,” said Ray Don McIntosh, minister of the nearby Mertzon Highway Church of Christ, which is joining other churches in town to provide food and baby-sitting for the services.
For many in this close-knit community of 2,000, the pain seems almost too much to bear.
“Everyone’s still in shock. They still can’t quite grasp what it’s all about,” said Shine Spigarelli, 81, who was born in this dusty town that depends on farming, ranching and gas production.
A small rodeo arena and a green city limits sign showing the population as 1,951 greet visitors along U.S. Highway 277, the main two-lane road through town.
The First Baptist Church, which has a 100-year-old congregation and a yellow-brick sanctuary and stained-glass windows, is off the highway. But its tall white steeple makes it hard to miss.
Inside the church, children’s drawings on a bulletin board depict large crosses surrounded by clouds. Each cloud contains the name of someone who died in the crash.
“If you love God, you will pray for the people that are in the clouds,” a child wrote in magic marker.
A few blocks away, at Duckwall’s Hometown Variety Store, manager Dawn Fay chokes back tears and reflects on the deaths of friends and customers.
They were loved ones who – along with the rest of the community – came to her family’s rescue when their house burned down two years ago.
“They replaced everything. They set up accounts at the bank for us,” the single mother of four said. “It’s just, anytime anything happens to anyone in town, everybody gets together and helps them out. We’re basically one big family.”
The church group left Eldorado on Sunday, excited about a 16-day tour of national historic sites. Monday morning, the bus slammed into a cotton-hauling tractor-trailer parked on the shoulder of Interstate 20 in Tallulah, La.
The bus driver, Kenneth J. Thomas, a 66-year-old deacon at the church, survived and told investigators he fell asleep at the wheel, Louisiana state police said.
“I feel for him deeply,” Fay said. “I just can’t imagine what he’s going through, having to live with this for the rest of his life.”
First Baptist Church members whose services were planned at the church Friday were Domingo Pina, 65; his wife, Delia Pina, 72; Kennith Richardson, 81; his wife, Betty A. Richardson, 81; and Mary Ruth Robinson, 63. Robinson’s husband, James W. Robinson, survived the crash.
The three other victims were friends of church members: Jean S. Demere, 74, of Water Valley; LaVerne Shannon, 76, of San Angelo; and Jimmy D. Teele, 68, of Water Valley.
Church bells chimed and more than 300 mourners sang “How Great Thou Art” and “I Come To Tell The Story” at a memorial service for Demere on Thursday at First Presbyterian Church in San Angelo, about 40 miles north of Eldorado.
Services for Shannon will be Friday at St. Luke Methodist Church in San Angelo. Teele’s funeral will be Friday at First United Methodist Church in Water Valley.
While the Rev. Andy Anderson of First Baptist Church prepared to deliver eulogies for five people in one day, Sheriff David Doran, a 40-year-old lifelong resident of Eldorado, focused on traffic and parking plans. He also tried to keep his emotions in check.
“Anytime we lose a member of the community, we mourn because we know them,” he said. “In this case, this bus accident represented our community. We had retired teachers, farmers, postal workers … and they’re the elders of our community.”
The closeness of the community makes dealing with the tragedy all the more difficult.
“Everyone’s just very sad,” said Gene McCalla, 84, who has lived here since 1939 and volunteered with four of the victims to help children improve their reading skills.
McCalla said he has no doubt Eldorado will overcome.
“That’s just the way we are,” he said. “We just go about our business. But if somebody needs help, we’re there.”