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Ohio college grieves after 4 school baseball players, 2 drivers, killed in bus crash

| Saturday, March 3, 2007

BLUFFTON, Ohio -- At a university smaller than some high schools, where many athletes live in the same dormitory, the deaths of four baseball players in a bus crash has left an entire campus feeling a profound sense of loss.

Football players from Bluffton University froze during a morning workout when they heard that the bus carrying the school's baseball team went off a highway overpass in Atlanta and fell 30 feet early Friday. They, and other students, scrambled to call baseball players' cell phones.

"It hits home harder than it would if it had happened at a bigger school," said Steve Rogers, an assistant football coach at the Mennonite-affiliated university of 1,155 students.

Killed were freshman Scott Harmon of Lima; David Betts, a sophomore from Bryan; Cody Holp, a freshman from Arcanum; and sophomore Tyler Williams of Lima. The driver and his wife, Jerome and Jean Niemeyer, also died.

Coach James Grandey and 28 players were taken to Atlanta-area hospitals. Grandey, 29, and four players were reported in serious or critical condition on Saturday. Many of the rest were soon released.

"Coach always emphasized for us to build a strong team and really be close with each other — we've really done that," survivor Greg Sigg, a first baseman, said Saturday on NBC's "Today" show. "I'm really thankful that the most of us made it out all right but it's extremely sad to know that we're going to go back to school in a week and they're not going to be here."

Kris Grandlinard, 40, flew from Indianapolis with his two daughters to visit his 19-year-old son William, a freshman left-handed pitcher on the team who was in serious condition at Grady Memorial Hospital with a concussion, a broken left arm, cracked ribs and injuries to his spleen and liver.

"I don't think he's really grasped the severity of the situation just yet. He knows there's some kids that have died. but he don't know who yet. And I don't know if he really wants to know," Grandlinard said.

On the Bluffton campus, candles flickered inside the gymnasium Friday evening as about 500 people — mostly students and residents of the small town — gathered for a vigil.

"Lord, we light these candles as a community of faith, a community that grieves," said Eric Fulcomer, dean of students. At the center of the gym floor, a baseball and glove sat on a table surrounded by candles.

The baseball team's annual spring trip to Florida was a highlight of the season, a chance to escape the dreary cold and snow and play ball in the sun. Saturday would have been the team's first spring-training game of the season, in Sarasota, and eight more games were scheduled in Fort Myers.

Many students attend the school with a focus on playing sports at the Division III level, where the cheering sections are small and typically consist of parents and friends.

"It's one huge family," said player Matt Ferguson, who didn't make the trip. "We spend all day together. We go to classes together. We do everything together."

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash, and the results could be released in a year, board member Kitty Higgins said.

Investigators said the driver apparently mistook an exit ramp for a lane and went into a curve at full speed. It was dark at the time, but the weather was clear. Investigators said there were no skid marks.

"I just looked out and saw the road coming up at me. I remember the catcher tapping me on the head, telling me to get out because there was gas all over," said A.J. Ramthun, an 18-year-old second-baseman from Springfield. He had been sleeping in a window seat and suffered a broken collarbone and facial cuts.

The driver had boarded the bus with his wife less than an hour before the wreck, relieving another driver, authorities said. Both were wearing seat belts, Higgins said, but it was not known if any of the passengers were. Motorcoaches like the one involved typically do not have seat belts in the passenger section.

Calls seeking comment from the charter company, Executive Coach Luxury Travel Inc. of Ottawa, Ohio, were not immediately returned. The company posted a message on its Web site saying it was deeply saddened by the crash and would cooperate with investigators.

Bluffton University is about 50 miles south of Toledo. About one-fifth of the students are Mennonite, and the school stresses spirituality, but it is open to all religious backgrounds.

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