‘Spirit’ in Enterprise tornado, Atlanta bus crash

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A member of Carolina Crown’s Drum & Bugle Corps staff, informed Drum Corps Planet/Marching Band Planet of two tragic incidents that have drum corps and marching band connections: The Enterprise, AL, tornado and an Atlanta bus crash, both involving members of Spirit Drum Corps, Jacksonville, AL, Luke Willingham and Mike Morris, board of directors. Morris’ wife, Carol, is familiar to many from running the Spirit shows.

Writing from north Alabama, I have my own connections to both of these traumas. I live an hour from Spirit Drum Corps, Jacksonville State University, and north of Enterprise, AL, where a tornado devastated the town March 1 shortly before school ended. I spent most of my life in Ohio, where Bluffton College, a Mennonite institution, is located.

The Bluffton bus crash was eerily familiar to a bus accident that took the lives of four school kids in Huntsville, AL, Nov. 20. Purportedly, the Bluffton bus driver, possibly thinking the exit ramp was a continuing HOV lane, crashed through an overpass guardrail and fell back onto I-75S below in downtown Atlanta around 4:30 AM., March 2, while driving to spring break baseball games in Florida. Four students and the husband/wife bus drivers were killed, while many others were injured. Fortunately, a "Spirit" arrived.

The forwarded news stated, "With the two recent tragedies, Enterprise HS, AL, and Bluffton Baseball Team Bus Crash in Atlanta, both of these events involved people with drum corps ties."

Excerpts from the Spirit Clubhouse — A member of Spirit 2006, a student at Enterprise HS:

For any of you that haven’t heard, Luke’s high school was hit by a cat. 3 tornado on Thursday. It was 1/4 mile wide and stayed on the ground for 8 miles. It first struck homes across the street from an elementary school and a middle school, passed through some of downtown, jumped the hospital and the elementary school that is next to the high school and hit the science wing of the high school, made a left turn and went down the third hall of the school, made a right turn and destroyed the new gym, all of the cars in the parking lot and the football field and then continued through town to destroy over 700 homes and the YMCA.

Luke was in the band room, which is located next to the science wing and would have been a direct hit it not for that first left-hand turn that it made. He was in the hallway with his indoor drumline and Jason Smith his percussion instructor. Luke also plays percussion for the Encores show choir at EHS. We lost 8 students, 4 of which were in Encores, 2 of which are in the band and Luke’s prom date last year and was to be this year.

Our school has been declared a disaster and has been condemned. Luke’s car is in the lot on its roof with all of the windows gone and the trunk and hood blown open with everything inside gone. They are not sure what is going to happen with school and we are praying that it will end in time for Luke to continue to march Spirit. Please keep all of these 1200 students in your thoughts and prayers as they try to recover from this horrific event.

Bus Crash – Mike Morris, longtime Spirit Volunteer and Board Member, aids victims

Everybody was shocked to see the news reports about those poor kids from Ohio whose bus flipped over the side and onto I-75. Nobody who knows Mike Morris was the least bit surprised that, when he was first on the scene, he didn’t hesitate to jump in and help. Just another group of kids that Mike was there to look out for. He and the other folks on hand that morning undoubtedly saved lives and gave comfort to some pretty scared young people and their families.

There are guardian angels in this world. Thank God for Mike Morris. I’m so thankful that he and folks like him characterize the heart of the SPIRIT family.

Watch and listen to Mike describing the rescue effort for ABC News (that’s where I saw it up here in Yankee Land) at:

Concluding, "While I know it is not corps related news, it does speak to the actions and involvement of current Corps Members and Volunteers."

Mike Morris, Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter, speaks of bus crash

Mike Morris, Spirit board of directors member and father of a lead trumpet, Will, revealed his experience with the Atlanta bus crash:

Cozy Baker: Would you share with readers your thoughts on the trauma you’ve experienced?

Mike Morris: Where to start? I guess a good place would be for me to say that while the bus wreck was a terrible thing for the Bluffton University baseball players and coaches and their families, the "trauma" that I personally experienced was in no way on the same scale as the trauma that Luke and his classmates at Enterprise endured last week. I’m almost embarrased to be mentioned in the same article.

As you might have heard, I was on my way to work (I’m the early-morning local news reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the paper’s website, AJC.COM), when the bus plunged from the bridge onto the same highway I was on, probably about 15 to 20 seconds ahead of me.

At first, I thought it was a tractor-trailer that had flipped on the interstate, and was blocking all southbound lanes. Just as my car came to a stop in the traffic (there were about 4 or 5 vehicles between me and the overturned bus), I dialed 911 on my cell phone. The operator asked me if there were any injuries, and I told her I would try to find out. As I got out of my car and started walking toward the wreckage, I noticed the emergency hatch on the roof of the bus, and guys crawling out the hatch, and I then realized that it wasn’t a truck wreck after all, but something far worse.

By the time I got up to the bus, there were several of the young men who had already crawled out of the bus, either through the emergency hatch or through the windshield, which had shattered on impact. Some of the survivors had gotten out and collapsed on the pavement, and others were wandering around in a daze, having just been awakened from a sound sleep in the most horrible way imaginable.

I and several other motorists who had gotten out of their cars began getting those who were walking around away from the bus, which was leaking fuel, and over to a concrete median wall where they could sit down. I asked one young man where they were from, and where they were headed. After he answered, he said, "I’m freezing; can you find me a blanket."

By that point (probably only 3 minutes or so since I made the 911 call, but it seemed like an eternity), the first firefighters, EMTs and police officers began arriving, and they asked me and all the other motorists who had stopped to move back from the wreckage.

At that point, I began taking pictures for ajc.com, and filing my story, which would be updated many times throughout the morning.

After the police had us move our cars, I made my way to the media staging area at the edge of the bridge, where I would spend the rest of the morning. I mentioned in passing to one of the radio news reporters that I’m good friends with that I had driven up on the wreck moments after it happened, he asked if I would give my account on the radio. Once I did that and word got around, I ended up doing two live interviews with CNN that morning, interviews with NBC, ABC and Fox News and AP radio. That evening, we had to drive our son, Will, over to JSU for Spirit camp (he’s a lead trumpet), and after dropping him off in Jacksonville, drove straight to CNN’s affiliate in Birmingham for a live interview on Paula Zahn’s show Friday night.

Now, to answer some of your specific questions….

CB: What went through your mind while enduring the tragedy?

MM: When I first saw the emergency hatch and realized it was a bus instead of a truck, my heart just sank. Being so closely involved with Spirit, a group that travels over 10,000 miles a year on buses very similar to the one I was looking at on its side, it hit really close to home. About an hour after the wreck, I called my wife (Carla, who runs Spirit’s home shows), because I knew it was about time for her to get up. I didn’t want her to wake up and turn on CNN as she normally does in the morning to this without knowing that I was okay.

CB: What were some of the most unusual sights, sounds or emotions you experienced?

MM: The thing that struck me the most at the scene was how quiet it was, and how calm the guys were who were crawling out of the bus. I’m sure they were in shock, but I didn’t notice any screams, just a few moans. I saw an interview on TV with the fire captain that was with the first crew on the scene, and he made the same observation.

CB: Did your drum corps training help you?

MM: Very much so. I think that if anything, touring with drum corps for as many years as I have (off and on since aging out of Spirit in 1979), has taught me to think quickly on my feet, to turn on the "autopilot" in a situation such as this.

CB: Do you have a different outlook on life now?

MM: Somewhat. After things finally slowed down over the weekend, I began to realize how easily I could have been at the exact spot on the interstate where the bus fell. There is a series of about five or six traffic lights in a commercial area before I get to the interstate on my morning commute. I usually hit most, if not all, of those lights on green. Friday morning, I got caught by two of the lights. Perhaps those few seconds were the difference between me being able to help the survivors and report on the tragedy and the death toll being seven instead of six.

Of course, I’ve known how easily one’s life can change in a blink since the summer of 1980. You see, Spirit was traveling with two vans that summer. The night Jim Ott was killed, I was driving the other van.

(Note: What a small world! In e-mail to Morris, Luke and Director Ken Bodiford, I had stated that I was in an interstate accident as a teen that was "eerily" similar to the tragedy that took legendary arranger Jim Ott, killed while on tour with Spirit of Atlanta. My accident took my dad, a corps treasurer. Injuries sidetracked my music career. Tasked to pursue this assignment, I took it as just another job. Little did I know…This is heart-wrenching.)

Capital Sound Drum Corps has been gathering supplies in Madison, WI, to send to the tornado victims in Enterprise. Cap Sound has enlisted the assistance of the Madison Scouts Drum Corps and local McFarland HS. Director Marc Gofstein of Capital Sound and Madison Scouts Executive Director Jeff Spanos await your contributions, http://www.capsound.org, http://madisonscouts.org. For more news: http://www.drumcorpseurope.org/news/publish/article_4698.shtml.

Updates on the Enterprise tornado can be found at http://www.al.com/news/press-register/index.ssf?/base/news/1172917095292480.xml&coll=3&thispage=3. Eight Enterprise HS students died, while more than 20 were killed across the South March 1, mostly in Alabama. For more news regarding the Bluffton College bus crash, read http://www.cnn.com/2007/US/03/02/bus.accident/index.html.

The Enterprise tornado will be compared to tornadoes that ravaged Xenia, OH, April 3, 1974, and Wichita Falls, TX, April 29, 1979. The Xenia tornado likewise skipped over major buildings, such as the historic courthouse, but took out some schools and many homes. Five years after the Xenia tornado, another killing tornado struck Wichita Falls, TX. Some fatalities occurred at a K-Mart where shoppers were advised to stay inside.

Flying into Ohio while in the Navy, I drove with my family to visit old drum corps pals in Xenia, three months after the ’74 tornado. The first friend’s home we drove up to…the house next-door was half gone, while a home two houses away had roof damage. My friend’s house was crumbled to the foundation. Driving to the next friend’s house, most of the houses on that block were gone. Depressed, we did not seek out any other corps friends’ homes.

"The April 3-4, 1974 ‘Super Outbreak,’ produced 148 tornadoes within a 24-hour period. This is the largest number on record. During the height of activity, 15 tornadoes were on the ground simultaneously. 315 persons were killed, 5484 were injured within the 13 states and Canada in which tornadoes occurred, with a total 2598 miles the tornadoes traveled," http://www.xeniatornado.com .

I lived near Wichita Falls in Ft. Worth, TX, when Wichita Falls was struck. An F4 twister killed 42, April 29, 1979. I never had any desire to see the residue of tornado damage there. The “Terrible Tuesday” tornado left 20,000 people homeless and did $400 million in damage in 1979 dollars, a U.S. record not topped by an individual tornado until the F5 Moore-Oklahoma City tornado of May 3, 1999, per Wikipedia.

For more news on the Nov. 20 Huntsville crash of a school bus, which also fell off an interstate overpass, I-565, check http://www.cnn.com/2006/US/11/21/bus.crash/index.html.

Last April, while driving home from an Atlanta CorpsVets rehearsal, I spotted a rolled car off in the woods, four tires to the sky, 300 yards from the AL/GA state line. Two young men stood miraculously safe by the flipped car. One was a trumpet player in Spirit. The "Spirit" is everywhere!

"Xenia" is Greek for "hospitality." One day Enterprise and Bluffton College will recover as we extend our hopes and hospitality. For now, we can all rejoice in the comfort given by Mike Morris and other such Good Samaritans. We at DCP/MBP wish Enterprise, Bluffton College, Morris, Luke and Spirit of JSU the best.

Posted by on Tuesday, March 6th, 2007. Filed under DCI World.