Healing and Hope

Community redefined

March 2, 2007, will always be a day remembered. A day of sorrow, grief, tears and heartache. A day of joy, elation, relief and wonder. On that day and in the days that followed, strangers became mothers and fathers, comforters and helpers, and Bluffton University came to know that a community is not just people with common interests living in a particular area – it is a body of individuals who came together to support,to help and to be a part of a greater good.

The baseball team bus accident on March 2 in Atlanta, Ga., shocked the Bluffton campus community. Families, friends, fellow students and Bluffton employees were unprepared for early morning phone calls notifying them of an accident. Breaking news alerts on every television channel replayed scenes of an excursion coach lying on its side beneath an overpass surrounded by flashing lights, police officers, firefighters and medical personnel. In an instant, lives were forever changed, and a team and its institution were catapulted into the national spotlight.

A nation responds

In that same instant, people responded. In Atlanta, passersby immediately pulled their vehicles off to the side of the highway and rushed to assist those inside the bus. Emergency medical teams arrived within minutes, providing urgent care to those in critical condition. Phone calls from residents living in Atlanta and surrounding areas began pouring into the three hospitals-Atlanta Medical Center, Grady Memorial Hospital and Piedmont Hospital-where members of the team were taken.

The university's main switchboard rang nonstop as did phones in the offices of the president, student life and public relations. In addition to expressing their condolences, total strangers offered transportation, food, clothing, housing and moral support and to meet any other needs the team and its families would have in the coming days and months.

The Bluffton campus community also responded. Within an hour of receiving word of the accident, the President's Cabinet had assembled. "My immediate thoughts were how do we respond to our student-athletes' and employees' needs in Atlanta and how do we respond to those on campus," says President James M. Harder. "We needed to make decisions quickly and efficiently." Classes were cancelled on the Bluffton campus and representatives were immediately sent to Atlanta. Phill Talavinia, athletics director; Guy Neal, head men's basketball coach; and Greg Brooks, head football coach, were a part of the first wave of Bluffton officials to head south.

"On our way to the airport, we talked about what we would see and experience," says Neal. "We soon realized there would be no procedure or plan for us to follow. We were there for the players and their families. Looking back, I hope I did some good, but I don't know if I really did because this was something different than I've ever had to do before."

Thrust onto the world's stage

News of the accident spread quickly, and a tearful, somber mood settled over campus, as students awaited a campus-wide meeting at 10 a.m. In a packed Founders Hall, President Harder explained to the campus community that the baseball team had been in an accident, that there were multiple fatalities and injuries and that more information would be released as it was made available. The students sat stunned, wondering how just hours before their biggest concerns had been what to pack for their spring break trips. Many of them, including Bluffton's student organizations, cancelled their travel plans to be with each other and their families as they attempted to digest the developments.

Meanwhile, television satellite trucks from across the nation began arriving on campus, lining up along College Avenue and Rosenberger Drive, with media personnel seeking out anyone who would comment on the tragedy. President Harder held a press conference, following the campus meeting, confirming only that the bus was indeed carrying Bluffton's baseball team and that there were fatalities. "Holding that first press conference was difficult," he says," because we didn't have a complete understanding of the accident and all it entailed."

The hours began to blur as the Bluffton community, along with the entire nation, waited, trying to make sense of the accident. The immediacy of 24/7 news coverage propelled the small village of Bluffton and its 1,150 university students onto the world's stage. The nation took even more interest when junior A.J. Ramthun (Springfield, Ohio), bruised and bandaged, tearfully spoke at a press conference outside Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta about the accident and the courage of his teammates, some who lost their lives and others who were battling for theirs.

Conversations between Atlanta and Bluffton officials continued throughout the morning and afternoon in attempts to gain more clarity on the accident. By mid afternoon, the names of the deceased had been confirmed by Atlanta officials. Wanting to extend his condolences, President Harder called family members, all of whom were either in or on their way to Atlanta. He and several other Bluffton officials would soon join the players and their families at the reunification center in Atlanta.

At 4 p.m., a second press conference was held on campus to release names of the deceased. They included sophomores David Betts (Bryan, Ohio) and Tyler Williams (Lima, Ohio); first-year students Scott Harmon (Lima, Ohio) and Cody Holp (Arcanum, Ohio); and the bus driver, Jerome Niemeyer, and his wife, Jean, both of Columbus Grove, Ohio.

As the campus tried to come to terms with the deaths of friends who sat in the classrooms, roomed across the hall and waved when they passed by on the sidewalks, Bluffton's student life office worked to assemble an evening candlelight prayer vigil. The social sciences department had already obtained the services of grief counselors earlier in the day, but the shock of the day's events would leave many too numb to say anything.

Students who remained on campus late into the evening were joined by Bluffton community members for a time of reflection. In Sarasota, Fla., Bluffton staff and alumni gathered at Bahia Vista Mennonite Church with local community members and baseball players and staff from Eastern Mennonite University whose team would have taken the field against Bluffton the next day. Prayers and tears mixed with the flames of candles burning brightly in remembrance of the lives that had been cut short and in thankfulness for the lives spared.

The generosity of strangers

In the following days, Bluffton and the nation attended to the needs of those in Atlanta. Citizens National Bank of Bluffton established a fund for the players and their families. Pastors and clergy from area churches came to the hospitals to visit and pray with the families; food and clothing were donated; hotel stays were arranged and transportation was made available. AirTran Airways, which had chartered a flight for families and Bluffton officials to travel to Atlanta, assisted the families in returning home, as did Delta Airlines. Atlanta officials made sure the travelers had no problems at the airport with many able to board their planes from the tarmac, bypassing the media.

President Harder returned from his first of three Atlanta trips in awe of the outpouring of support from the Atlanta community. "We are a small university with a large and caring heart," he said at a March 6 press conference on campus, "and we have been overwhelmed with support from the large hearts of others, including the residents of Georgia, emergency response teams, the Red Cross, churches, hospitals and their staffs, the AirTran and Delta airlines and various civic groups." In the two months that followed the accident, Bluffton would send 15 individuals to Atlanta to care for the team members who remained hospitalized and their families. Each individual returned with countless stories of strangers reaching out, wanting to help, wanting to do what they could to make things just a little bit easier.

Bluffton's administration established a "Caring Community" process to provide support for both the student body as it returned to campus after spring break, and more specialized support for the student-athletes and their families who were directly involved with the accident. Jacqui Slinger, director of learning services, became the team and family care coordinator. She would work directly with the players and their families. Dr. Sally Weaver Sommer, vice president and dean of academic affairs, became the campus care coordinator, working to ensure counseling services would be available to anyone who needed them.

During the week of spring break, members of the Bluffton campus community attended visitation hours and funeral services for those who lost their lives. One week, almost to the hour of the accident, the campus community suffered yet another setback when a fifth student-athlete, first-year student Zachary Arend (Oakwood, Ohio), died from injuries he had sustained. Again, the community mourned.

Gathering in remembrance

On March 12, classes resumed as scheduled. Students, and the baseball players who were able, returned to campus. All were unsure of what to say or how to act. Faculty and staff met to discuss how to process the tragedy with students as this would be new territory for almost everyone. All were encouraged to think first and foremost about the needs of the baseball players and students — needs that had changed dramatically since the accident and would continue to morph as time passed.

That evening, Bluffton and the surrounding community gathered for a memorial service. Nearly 2,500 shared in remembering the lives of those lost, including Ohio governor Ted Strickland; representatives from numerous colleges, universities, churches and Mennonite organizations; Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference athletes; AirTran Airways workers; and members of the Atlanta Fulton County Fire, Search and Rescue Squad. In front of a hushed Founders Hall audience and closed-circuit seating in Burcky Gym, the baseball team entered the gymnasium with seven lit candles, centering them on the stage in remembrance of those who died.

"The Bluffton University community has been extended in ways that could not previously have been imagined," President Harder said during the ceremony. "We are deeply grateful for every expression of condolence and every act of caring. Truly, through all this we have felt the hand of God reaching out to bring comfort when we have experienced so much pain and loss."

President Harder observed the strength and nobility of each baseball team member, especially that of Arend, Betts, Harmon, Holp and Williams. "For the five players we remember this evening, the 2007 season ended before they could take the field for their first game," he said. "But along with their teammates, their lives have already inspired us in more ways this season than would have been possible no matter how outstanding their play on the field."

Following the service, Taylor University, an institution that lost five of its own in a van accident almost a year prior, provided food for a time of fellowship in Marbeck Center. The Bluffton community and friends gathered to support each other just as Bluffton faculty, staff and students had done in meetings earlier in the day.

In the weeks that followed March 2, the baseball team and the Bluffton campus community would try to pick up the pieces and try to heal. One by one, those who remained hospitalized in Atlanta returned home. The team would again practice. The players would again play ball. They would begin to heal. In mid April, the remaining hospitalized senior student-coach Tim Berta (Ada, Mich.) was transferred to a hospital in Toledo, Ohio, ending Bluffton's presence in Atlanta.

Community redefined

President Harder made a return trip to Atlanta to visit with and thank many of the individuals and organizations who stepped in to help the baseball team and community recover after the accident. "The entire Bluffton community — and especially the baseball team members and their families — has been uplifted by support from Atlanta in the aftermath of our tragic accident," he said during an April 16 Atlanta city council meeting. "We've experienced Atlanta as a big city with a very big heart."

The response from the Atlanta community was only part of the broader support that Bluffton has received since March 2. Bluffton and its baseball team has become a part of an indescribable community that continues to provide support from every direction. Individuals, agencies, organizations, schools, universities and churches have offered prayers, kind words and more in the hopes that their contributions, no matter how big or small, will make a difference. No number of magazine pages can accurately portray the amount of support that the baseball team and Bluffton has received or define what it means to be part of a community.

Prior to March 2, many a student and graduate of Bluffton University chose to attend the institution because of the value it places on community. Since March 2, everyone connected to Bluffton has gained a new perspective on what community truly means.

"Community is daily notes in your Marbeck mailbox — half of the time from people you don't even know — letting you know that someone is thinking about you," says junior captain Ryan Baightel (Wapakoneta, Ohio), as he reflected on the support he and the team received before heading home for summer break. "Community is professors being compassionate and understanding when it comes to work and assignments. Community is an administration, from the top down, who supported us in Atlanta and back in Ohio. Community is a staff who takes the team under its wings and takes care of every single detail so that we didn't have to. I've learned that I can be a part of multiple communities. I feel as though I belong to my hometown community, the Bluffton community, the Ohio community and the Atlanta community."

While no person or institution should ever have to experience what Bluffton University, its baseball team and its community experienced on March 2, life inevitably throws curveballs, and the unimaginable presents itself. When the unimaginable presented itself to Bluffton, the community responded, coming together to support, to heal and to hope.