Families remember those killed in bus crash, keep vigil for the injured

The bus trip from Chicago to a Mississippi gambling town was a twice-a-year tradition for the group of friends and relatives, as much about visiting, laughing and reminiscing as it was about trying to strike it rich. Fourteen of the 30 travelers were killed when the bus crashed early Saturday on Interstate 55 in Arkansas. Many of the others were critically hurt. While family members kept vigil at hospitals Sunday in Little Rock and Memphis, Tenn., members of the victims' churches prayed for them in Chicago. Billy Lyons and his wife, Maxie, had been making the trips to the gambling hotbed of Tunica, Miss., for the past decade - more to spend time with their friends than to try to get lucky in the casinos, said their son, John Coney. "They enjoy life. They were very family-oriented," Coney said. Billy Lyons, a blind, retired steel mill worker, asked for his wife when rescuers found him, said Assistant Fire Chief John Burns of West Memphis, one of the emergency responders. "We asked, 'What was your wife wearing?' and he said he was blind and he didn't know. He couldn't tell us." Maxie Lyons, 64, was among those killed. Her 63-year-old husband suffered broken legs. One of those injured, Theophilus Cannon, was unable to speak to his sister, Octavia Eddings. But he wrote on a notepad: "I feel better." His fiancee, Shirley Fox, told Eddings she recalled feeling "a big bump" on the bus and saw Cannon go flying past her. "She saw another guy go to the left. She said it was an instant. There was no warning. Nothing," Eddings said. "She said the bus just started automatically tumbling."

The owner of the mom-and-pop tour operation, Roosevelt Walters of Chicago, lost his wife and brother in the crash. Walters' wife, Mareen, 67, arranged the trip for the group, and his brother, Herbert, 67, was the driver. "In one instant, he lost it all," the Rev. James Meeks told his congregation at Salem Baptist Church on Chicago's South Side. Before the sermon Meeks said that the group consisted of family members and close friends. "It seemed like a tight-knit group of people who were fun-loving," Meeks said. Investigators spent Sunday trying to determine whether Herbert Walters fell asleep at the wheel, causing the bus to drift off the road, or if there was a mechanical problem with the bus. Eddings said relatives and friends of the victims were still trying to come to grips with what happened. "I feel very fortunate my brother's life has been spared," she said. At the Regional Medical Center in Memphis, Tenn., friends and family of victims gathered in the critical-care waiting room of the hospital's Elvis Presley Memorial Trauma Center. Two tables were laden with lunchmeat and bread, potato chips and cookies brought to the hospital by two women from the Memphis suburb of Bartlett. They didn't want their names published, but had simply come to help. Two other women - Brenda Clay of Memphis and Beverly Clay-Wilson of Chicago, relatives of crash survivor Herbert Redmond, 62 - also were in the waiting room. They said they were grateful for the care Redmond had received, at the scene of the accident as well as in the hospital. Both praised highly what they saw as the expertise and compassion of members of the Marion Fire Department who were first on the scene after the crash. One of the firefighters, Clay said, helped care for Redmond. "He was conscious, just a minute or so," Clay said. "Even though he was awake only for a brief time, it was good that someone was there." Clay said the response of friends and relatives of those who survived reflected the purpose of the trip ended by the crash. "It's just neighborhood and community," she said. "There's still good old American communities where people get togethger and do things together." Redmond's 82-year-old mother, a Memphis resident, occupied a lounge chair in the waiting room, one of 30 upholstered in a flower-print fabric that are scattered around the room. She clutched an aluminum cane, tears appearing in her eyes as she talked with others. A plastic jar of shelled peanuts provided occasional nourishment. Clay-Wilson approached a reporter with a message from the older woman, who didn't want her name used. Clay-Wilson said the crash victim's mother wanted to express "her heartfelt thanks, from the bottom of her heart, for everyone who has helped through this ordeal."

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)