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Church Mourns Loss of La. Crash Victims

October 14, 2003

ELDORADO, Texas (AP) _ They were among the spiritual leaders of their church and the elders of their tiny West Texas town. Parents and grandparents, they had worked in the oil business, in medicine and in education. Eldorado lost eight senior citizens Monday in a northeastern Louisiana bus crash that occurred after the driver apparently fell asleep. Seven others were injured when the bus slammed into a cotton-hauling tractor-trailer parked on the shoulder of Interstate 20 in Tallulah, La. One was in critical condition Tuesday.

``They were the elders of our community,″ said Schleicher County Sheriff David R. Doran, who had one of the injured as a home economics teacher years ago.

The bus, carrying 13 passengers and two drivers, left this past weekend for a 16-day tour of historical sites in the South and the East.

``They were going to see fall foliage and they were going to see Dollywood and to Nashville,″ said Kathy Hillman, whose mother survived the crash. ``They’re all in their 60s and 70s, maybe even 80s. They were young-at-heart senior citizens.″

The victims had traveled together as far as Ireland, and were among the ``spiritually mature″ members of the First Baptist Church, pastor Andy Anderson said. Many taught Sunday school regularly.

A piece of paper taped to the office door at the church provided the solemn news. The names of six of the victims were typed, with two others added later in pencil.

``To lose these people, it’s like losing one of your family,″ said member Corrine Hext, 80. ``It’s sad and it’s going to affect Eldorado for a long, long time.″

Two long-married couples from the church _ Kennith and Betty Richardson, both 81, and Domingo and Delia Pina _ were among those killed.

The Pinas joined other church members in missions to Acuna, Mexico, across the border from Del Rio. Delia Pina, 72, a retired nurse, helped doctors care for residents, and Domingo Pina, 65, a retired oil company worker, helped build three homes in the town.

``We relied greatly on them for their help,″ Anderson said Monday night. ``Domingo was always helping around here.″

The Richardsons, a retired oil company worker and a homemaker married for more than 50 years, ``were more devoted to each other than perhaps anybody that I know,″ Anderson said. ``He was the type who would always open the door for Betty after all these years. It was that generation.″

Also killed was Mary Ruth Robinson, who worked in the church nursery and once was a school teacher in Eldorado. Her husband, Jim, a retired Enron employee, survived but his condition was not yet known, a church member said.

Another Mary Robinson _ Mary Barton Robinson, 74, of Eldorado _ was among the survivors.

The others who died were Jean S. Demere, 74, and Jimmy D. Teel, 68, both of Water Valley, and Laverne Shannon, 76, of San Angelo.

All seven survivors, including driver Kenneth J. Thomas, 66, a retired teacher and experienced bus driver from Eldorado, remained hospitalized Tuesday, state police said. The driver of the cotton truck was not seriously hurt.

Louisiana state Trooper Julie Lewis said Thomas was ticketed for careless driving, but the investigation is continuing. Investigators will ask why Thomas did not ask the other driver on board to take over.

Kenneth Suydam, investigator in charge for the National Transportation Safety Board, added that his agency will look at whether lower regulations for church buses played a role in the crash.

Churches and other groups that keep buses for their members’ use are exempt from some federal safety regulations, including drivers’ medical exams and a log of driving and off-duty hours.

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