STATESVILLE, N.C. (AP) – He was the oldest victim in the fiery crash of a church bus in Tennessee, but Cloyce Matheny was truly young at heart.
The 95-year-old retired aeronautical engineer went skydiving just a couple years ago, and was involved with a seniors group at his North Carolina church.
So there was no way he was going to miss the group’s big annual outing – a trip to a three-day festival in Gatlinburg, Tenn., featuring gospel singers and speakers.
On the way back to Statesville Wednesday, the bus with the members on board members blew a tire, veered across a highway median and crashed into a sport utility vehicle and tractor-trailer, killing eight, police said. It left the bus on its side next to the tractor-trailer, the wreckage extending across two lanes of traffic and into the median. Fourteen people were hurt, two in critical condition.
Six of the dead were members of the Front Street Baptist Church, including Matheny, from the Statesville, a small city located at the juncture of Interstates 40 and 77, and about 30 miles north of Charlotte.
The Tennessee Highway Patrol has identified the other victims from the church as 66-year-old Randy Morrison, who police said was driving the bus; his wife, Barbara, 66; 69-year-old Brenda Smith; 62-year-old Marsha McLelland; and 73-year-old John Wright. All were from Statesville except Wright, from nearby Mocksville, N.C.
One person in the sport utility vehicle, Trent Roberts, 24, of Knoxville, Tenn., was killed. The driver of the tractor-trailer was identified Friday as 66-year-old Mose Farmer, of New Orleans.
And the partial government shutdown has affected the investigation.
The National Transportation Safety Board wasn’t sending investigators to Tennessee to probe the deadly crash _ even though it’s the type of accident the agency would typically look into. Nearly all of the board’s 400 employees have been furloughed because of the shutdown, including accident investigators.
For days, people in the community have gathered at the church, offering condolences and whispering prayers. They have cried and hugged each other. Police have cordoned off the church to prevent reporters from talking to those inside.
As the community continued to grieve Friday, families and friends recalled stories about the victims.
“He was active,” Gilbert Matheny said about his father. Neighbors say they saw him doing yard. He was a popular member of the church’s Young at Heart ministry which reaches out to older members of the congregation. They take road trips together and sing in the senior choir.
Just a few weeks ago, Cloyce traveled to Ohio to visit his daughter who was exhibiting her hand-made jewelry at the Yankee Peddler Festival in Canal Fulton, Ohio. Gilbert and his brother went, too.
Gilbert Matheny said his father wanted to spend time with his children. And at the festival, he helped polish the jewelry.
He had a successful career at McDonnell Douglas. And he and his late wife, Kitty, made mission trips.
When she died in 2012, Cloyce wrote a special tribute in her obituary.
“God put us together 69 years ago! What a wonderful and talented virtuous lady…We went everywhere and did everything together. Now she has preceded me to our creator. Man how I will miss her. I love you.”
He went skydiving on his 90th birthday. After he landed, Matheny asked the instructor if he was the oldest person to skydive at that airport. The instructor said no – a 91-year-old held the record. When the instructor asked Cloyce if he would come back for his next birthday, he said no.
“He said he would be back in two years to break the record,” said Gilbert Matheny, adding that his father lived up to the promise.
“That was the kind of guy he was.”
In Marsha McLelland’s neighborhood of tree-line homes, friends were still trying to come with grips of the tragedy. Her 64-year-old husband Ed McLelland was seriously injured in the crash and still in the hospital.
The couple was retired – she was a nurse; her husband a teacher. They also had a house in the western North Carolina mountains and traveled a lot.
“They were just wonderful people,” said Kay Kapps, who has lived across the street from the McLellands for 38 years.
The couple was different, she was quiet, and he was outgoing. They have two children.
Kay said she and her husband Jackie were good friends with the McLellands.
On Sunday, the Kapps went over their neighbor’s house. During the visit, Marsha asked if they would watch her cat while they were away at the Tennessee festival. The Kapps said yes.
“They were very excited about the trip,” Jackie Kapps said. “They were looking forward to seeking all the gospel groups. The last thing I said to them was be careful and have a good time.”
He paused for a moment.
“I didn’t know I would never see them again.”
Kay said she’s still in shock. On Friday, she went over the McLellands’ house to feed the cat. Everywhere she went she was reminded of the couple.
“It’s hard to believe she’s not coming home,” she said.
Weiss reported from Statesville, N.C. Associated Press writer Travis Loller contributed to this report from Nashville, Tenn.
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