Car crash turns celebration into sadness


UPLAND, Ind. – A week of celebrations turned to mourning on a university campus yesterday after a highway crash killed five students and staff as they headed home after setting up for a scholarship banquet.

It was the second deadly crash in a week involving an Indiana school. Together, the accidents claimed 10 lives, nine of them students at either Taylor University or Indiana University.

On the Taylor campus yesterday morning, the chapel filled to capacity as more than 1,500 people from the evangelical Christian school remembered the four students and one staff member killed Wednesday night when a tractor-trailer hit their van on Interstate 69.

“It’s like we’re still waiting for a phone call that says ‘this isn’t real,'” said Eugene Habecker, the school’s new president whose inauguration celebrations were this weekend.

Habecker sobbed briefly before composing himself to say, “It’s like a very bad dream.”

The five victims all worked in the university’s dining services and had been preparing a banquet that was part of the inauguration celebration. Four others in the van were hospitalized, including a 22-year-old student in critical condition yesterday.

The van was about 10 miles north of Taylor’s Upland campus, 60 miles northeast of Indianapolis, when the truck crashed through the median about 8 p.m. and slammed into it, authorities said. The impact peeled up the side of the van and threw passengers from the vehicle.

As word of the deaths spread across the campus of 1,900 students Wednesday night, friends and classmates gathered in the chapel to pray.

Yesterday morning, hundreds returned to the chapel for a prayer service. Classes were canceled for the day, and officials were reconsidering the weekend’s planned banquet and inaugural celebrations that had been planned to welcome the university’s new president.

Last weekend, Indiana University in Bloomington was in mourning.

Five music school graduate students from the university died when their plane crashed in fog outside Bloomington as they were returning from a concert rehearsal in West Lafayette last Thursday. A preliminary investigation report, released Wednesday, found no mechanical problems with the plane.

A memorial service for the music school students was held Wednesday evening at a Bloomington theater.

At Taylor, 100 miles northwest of Bloomington, students sobbed and hugged each other outside the campus chapel.

“We don’t know why this happened or what will come of it, but we trust that God does,” said junior David Ridenour, 21, who knew victim Elizabeth A. Smith. She was a leader of a group that organizes missionary trips abroad, he said.

“She was always smiling. She had such a heart for ministries,” Ridenour said.

Investigators were trying to determine why the semi had crashed through the median and into the van. The truck driver, identified by police as Robert F. Spencer, 27, of Canton, Mich., was hospitalized in fair condition yesterday.

“It was one of the most horrific crashes I’ve ever seen,” said Indiana State Police Sgt. Rod Russell.

Another Taylor van was following the one involved in the crash, but it had pulled off the highway to refuel and came up on the accident scene soon afterward, said university spokesman Jim Garringer.

Police identified the victims as Elizabeth A. Smith, 22, of Mount Zion, Ill.; Bradley J. Larson, 22, of Elm Grove, Wis.; Whitney E. Cerak, 18, of Gaylord, Mich.; Laurel E. Erb, 20, of St. Charles, Ill.; and Taylor University employee Monica Felver, 53, of Hartford City.

The university employee driving the van, Vickie L. Rhodes, 54, of Fairmount; employees Connie Magers, 50, of Gas City, and Michele M. Miller, 43, of Marion; and student Laura J. Vanryn, 22, of Caledonia, Mich., were hospitalized. Vanryn was in critical condition after being airlifted to Parkview Hospital in Fort Wayne.