Thousands Pack Memorial Service for Bus Crash Victims

BLUFFTON (AP) - A father wearing his son's baseball cap and classmates with shirts bearing pictures of a fallen friend were among those who gathered Monday night to remember five college baseball players killed in a bus wreck.  Players who survived carried candles, lighting one for each of their Bluffton University teammates who died in Atlanta along with their bus driver and his wife.

The Bluffton Beavers baseball team was headed to Sarasota, Florida, on March 2nd to play in a double header with Eastern Mennonite University.  Then they were headed to Fort Myers to participate in the Gene Cusic Classic tournament.  Atlanta Police spokesman Joe Cobb said the driver apparently mistook an exit lane for part of a carpool lane, and drove up the ramp until he hit an intersection.  The bus went off the overpass, and tumbled over a fence and guard rail, landing on its left side.

Hundreds of people packed Founders Hall on the Bluffton University campus for the memorial service, and an overflow audience listened outside as the student body mourned together for the first time.  The service was attended by Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, numerous other public officials, college and university representatives, Mennonite Church officials, AirTran employees, other athletes from colleges in the same conference, and fire and rescue personnel.

Team captain Ryan Baightel led his teammates out of the wreckage just over a week ago. He led them again into the gymnasium for the memorial service, with teammates, some still sporting wounds from the crash, carrying candles.  There was one for Zach Arend, David Betts, Scott Harmon, Cody Holp, and Tyler Williams, the players who died in the crash, and one each for Jerome and Jean Niemeyer, the bus drivers.

The memorial ceremony beamed live by satellite to Atlanta, where the team's coach and several other players are still recovering in the hospital.

Administrators thanked the rescue workers and medical personnel who responded to the crash and thanked the entire city of Atlanta for showing that small-town values can be seen in a big city.  People held each other, and sang hymns.   The faith of the faithful at this small, Mennonite college clearly on display in the hope that their team tragedy is only temporary.

Two more of the baseball players injured in the Bluffton University bus crash have been released from Atlanta hospitals.  Kyle King of Dover, south of Canton, and William Grandlinard of Bern, Indiana, were discharged Monday.  Coach James Grandey remains hospitalized in stable condition, while 22-year-old Tim Berta -- a senior and student coach from Ida, Michigan -- is in a hospital in critical condition.

The Bluffton University web page says the Bluffton Beavers play their homes games at Sears Field in Bluffton.  Bluffton's team finished 17-21 in 2006, with a record of 10-11 in the Heartland Conference, tying them for second place in their NCAA Division 3 conference.

The school was founded in 1899, and the team played its first game in 1905. Its all-time record is 622-807-24.

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Posted by AEB