Ten years, and tens of thousands of prayers later, they were with each other again, brought together by a tragedy forever woven into their collective thoughts and identity.
Ball players and coaches. Parents and family members. They all gathered with school officials Thursday at Bluffton University to pay their respects on the 10th anniversary of the Bluffton bus crash. The accident claimed the lives of five players, as well as the bus driver and his wife, as the team traveled to Florida for a much anticipated baseball trip.
Time hasn’t erased the impact or their memories of that day. It never will.
The crash happened just before daylight on March 2, 2007. The bus carrying 33 players and coaches was accidentally driven onto a poorly marked, left-side exit ramp off Interstate 75 in Atlanta. The driver mistook the high occupancy vehicle (HOV) ramp for a highway lane and was unable to make a sharp turn as the ramp fed into an overpass. The bus toppled off the side, crashing 30 feet below and back onto I-75.
The loss of life that day was beyond comprehension.
Tyler Williams was a sophomore and a Lima Senior High School graduate. He felt at home on a baseball diamond, but was also known for writing poetry and his love of music and laughter. He was a natural leader.
Scott Harmon was a freshman and an Elida High School graduate. Friends said they never remembered him being mad. He was friendly and upbeat, a person his classmates enjoyed being around.
David Betts, from Bryan, was a sophomore, and Cody Holp, from Arcanum, was a freshman. Those who knew them would say they “would do anything for anybody.”
Zachary Arend, of Oakwood in Paulding County, died a week after the crash. His parents questioned how anyone without strong faith could handle such a tragedy and loss. They clung to their faith as they sat by Zachary’s bedside until he passed. They thanked God for the extra time.
Bus driver Jerry Niemeyer, of Columbus Grove, was no stranger to the Bluffton team. He was their driver on previous trips. His wife, Jean, had retired and was looking forward to accompanying Jerry on the Florida trip and many others. Players remember they wore Bluffton baseball caps and cheered for them at games.
On the morning of the crash, people woke up across the nation to learn the news from 24-hour cable news networks, which played the footage over and over again. In the days, weeks and months that followed, the accident continued to garner national attention. Stories emerged about teammates helping each other at the scene. We learned how team captain Ryan Baightel, of Wapakoneta, stepped up to identify those who died. Sports Illustrated called them heroes.
All the while, the public watched sadly as funeral after funeral took place.
Twenty-eight days after the crash, the team returned to the field in a home game against Mount St. Joseph. Miraculously, team member Tim Berta, who was in a coma and clinging to life since the crash, would open his eyes that day for the first time. The Bluffton team would finish their season with a 5-19 record, however, with every game played it brought comfort, hope and inspiration.
The crash led to revamped federal guidelines for HOV signs nationwide. Also enacted into law was a mandate to ensure all newly built motorcoaches have lap and shoulder belts included for passengers by November 2016. Stronger frames and windows for rollover crashes were also mandated. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who introduced the legislation and fought for years to get it passed, said the real credit belonged to the Betts family and their persistence in pushing Congress and manufacturers for the change.
A memorial, called the “Circle of Remembrance,” now is part of the Bluffton baseball complex. It features a “Touching Home” sculpture that includes a replica of home plate with footprints taken from the cleats of the five players who died. The complex itself has been renamed Bluffton University Memorial Field.
For the nation, the Bluffton bus crash happened 10 years ago. For the families who lost sons, it’s been part of them every day since.
Unless you have lost a child or sibling, you cannot truly imagine what it’s been like for these families. But there’s one thing we can all do: Remember the 2007 “Bluffton baseball family” in our prayers as this anniversary passes.