NEW BRAUNFELS, Texas (AP) — The deaths of 13 senior adults in a crash as they returned home from a retreat has left fellow worshippers at their Texas church mourning the smiling regulars who served in the kitchen, led Bible studies and spent time in fellowship.
"These are individuals we've sat next to and had dinner with and laughed with and cried with and worshipped with. They were part of our church family," said Brad McLean, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in New Braunfels, Texas.
Authorities said Thursday that the church members who died in the Wednesday crash ranged in age from 61 to 87. They were returning home from a three-day church retreat when the small bus they were traveling in and a pickup truck collided head on.
McLean said that they are facing the "hard reality" that they will no longer see those churchgoers walk through the door and be able to greet them and hug them. McLean said those who were killed were among a group of 65 people from the church who attended the retreat, which included Bible study and fellowship.
"I think it's the everyday interaction and relationship that has been built that, boy, those are the things that really will affect us a week from now, a month from now, a year from now," he said.
Varia Schwope of San Marcos, California, said she and Donna Hawkins, 69, had grown to be buddies in the 15 years since they first met through a square dance club. Schwope marvels that they never once had a disagreement when they served as co-presidents of the Whirlaway Square Dance Club in nearby Escondido, California.
They had planned to travel together — perhaps a cruise, she said. Hawkins frequently watched Schwope's dog and even crafted a pillow for it.
Even after Hawkins moved from Southern California to Central Texas, she still returned often to visit. And although they last saw one another in September, the spoke often by phone — most recently last week, Schwope said.
"She was there when I buried my husband, and I was there when she buried her husband," she said.
Glenn Timmermann said that his "heart just dropped" when he saw that 87-year-old Harold Barber was among those who died. Timmermann came by the church on Thursday to pay his respects because he'd gotten to know Barber about a year ago when Barber led a Bible study at a retirement home.
"He was a fun loving person. He always had a smile. He brought a lot of happiness to my heart in that Bible study," Timmermann said.
Also killed was the bus driver, 67-year-old Murray Barrett, who was a semi-retired middle school math teacher. Twenty-one-year-old Amity Dohoney told San Antonio Express-News that he'd taught her 7th and 8th grade math, and they remained close through the church.
McLean said that hours after the crash, family members came to the church to cry and grieve together. "Our church family did what church families are supposed to do: Lots of prayer. Lots of support for those families. Lots of crying with those families," McLean said.
McLean said that some of those who were killed had served in the church's kitchen on Wednesday nights.
"You live life with folks and so you just share so many small interactions that add up to a relationship that impacts you and strengthens your heart," he said.
A fairly steady stream of people continued to come into the church throughout the day on Thursday, several carrying Bibles as they went in.
Associated Press writers Jamie Stengle and Terry Wallace contributed to this report from Dallas.