INDIANAPOLIS – A bus carrying teenagers returning to Indiana from a church camp in Michigan crashed Saturday afternoon just minutes from home, killing three people and sending 26 others to hospitals, officials said.
The bus came speeding off of Interstate 465 in northern Indianapolis, about a mile from the Colonial Hills Baptist Church that passengers attended, struck a retaining wall as it rounded a curve and overturned. The campers were returning from Camp CoBeAc in northern Michigan, about six hours away.
The church’s youth pastor had sent a tweet a couple of hours before the crash saying the group was expected to arrive at the church about 4:15 p.m., around the time the accident happened.
“They were not that far from home. That only adds to the tragedy,” said Indianapolis Public Safety Director Troy Riggs.
The dead included a man and his wife, Riggs said. Authorities did not provide information about the third victim.
Riggs and Mayor Greg Ballard visited the crash scene, where clothing, pillows and seat cushions from the bus were scattered along with at least two shattered windows, before they headed to the church. Riggs said there was no indication that the driver had a medical emergency and called the accident “a great tragedy.”
Ballard said investigators were taking measurements and examining the bus to determine the cause of the crash.
WTHR-TV reported the bus driver told witnesses his brakes failed. Indianapolis Fire Department Lt. Ato McTush said police and fire officials had not determined whether the church-owned bus, which was carrying 37 passengers plus the driver, had mechanical issues.
Duane Lloyd told WTHR that he heard a loud noise behind him as he was traveling near the intersection and saw the crash around 4:15 p.m.
“I heard a skid. I looked back. I see this bus in the air and people falling out of the bus,” Lloyd said. “I could have gone my whole life without seeing that.”
Karen Woodard, a member of Colonial Hills Baptist Church, cried as she stared at the wrecked bus.
“It’s so terrible. I can’t believe it,” she said.
Indianapolis Fire Department said crews had to free five people who were trapped inside after the crash. Several people stopped to help before first responders could arrive, including one man who helped pull the driver out of the bus, the department said.
“People were stopping their cars. People were literally trying to lift the bus,” Lloyd said. “You just try to do what you can do.”
Fire officials said the injured included children and adults.
Nine teenagers were taken to IU Health Methodist Hospital, including one in critical condition. Three of those were treated and released, hospital spokeswoman Sally Winter said. She said 10 others, including nine teenagers and a toddler, were taken to Riley Hospital for Children. Seven of those teenagers were treated and released, Winter said.
Many of the patients were suffering head, arm and leg injuries, fire officials said.
Roads near the scene were closed, and authorities urged people to use caution in the area. A hazardous materials crew was cleaning up diesel fuel that spilled in the crash.
Outside the church, a yellow school bus with the church school’s name was parked outside with piles of sleeping bags and suitcases nearby. Families hugged outside and talked quietly before going inside, where they met with Ballard and Riggs Saturday evening.
Ballard described the families as “remarkably positive” despite their sorrow.
“Some of the teenagers are hurting pretty bad and you can see that in their faces,” he said.
Church member Jeff Leffew, 44, of Fishers, who had three daughters on the bus that crashed and a fourth on a second bus, said he was waiting to pick them up in the church parking lot when the second bus arrived. He said he knew immediately that something was wrong because the kids on the bus were screaming.
He went to the crash scene and found his three daughters with only bumps and bruises.
He called the crash scene “surreal.”
“You’re just praying that it’s not as bad as it looks,” he said.
Associated Press writer Tom Murphy contributed to this story.