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Our precious loss: Congregation bonded by grief

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Pastors at First Assembly of God steer church through losses after youth group outing

By Amber Coulter

Martha Tennison had preached many times at Radcliff First Assembly of God. but no previous sermon prepared her to deliver the message of God’s faithfulness to the weeping congregation May 15, 1988, in a voice choked with tears.

Martha called her husband at 11 the night before to see whether their 15-year-old son had made it back from a trip to King’s Island on a bus with other church youth, chaperones and guests.

She was growing worried. Her husband, Don, was the church’s pastor and he said the bus had not returned and he would wait at the church on Rogersville Road until the group arrived.

Martha’s husband called her back near midnight to tell her he had gotten word the bus transporting the group had been in a wreck and some of the passengers were being taken to various hospitals in the Carrollton area.

Don already knew their son was uninjured, but some of the passengers were dead.

Authorities requested  the parents of children who were passengers on the bus remain at the church through the night so officials could reach them as they identified the injured and the dead.

Martha raced to the building, where many other overwhelmed parents had gathered to pick their kids up from the ill-fated bus before news of the tragedy came.

“Most of them just began to pray,” she said.

Parents sat in pews and stood at the altar with their heads bowed, silently talking to God.

The calls began to come.

The desperate petitions were disturbed again and again by a ringing phone.

Some calls meant  answered prayers for parents. Their children were well. They could come home.

Other calls were to inform parents which hospitals were treating their children. They trickled out to drive to their kids’ bedsides.

During the early morning hours of that Mother's Day, other parents relieved the worst phone call of their lives while surrounded by their church family members. They cried and accepted hugs when they learned they never again would see their loved ones alive, Martha said.

“We did a lot of weeping and holding on to each other,” she said.

The night wore on like that until about 7 a.m. Of the 67 on the bus, the final count included 27 dead and 34 injured.

Don took parents of children who had died to Carrollton to meet with the medical examiner. That left Martha sleep-deprived and raw with emotion in front of a confused congregation that Sunday morning to explain why some of the church members were so upset.

“I just told them what happened,” she said. “Our hearts had been broken by tragedy.”

Martha talked to the congregation about the strength and power of God and his ability to aid the hurt and grieving.

“I cried, too, as I talked” she said. “You just can’t keep from crying.”

One of the faces in the pews was her son, Allen, who sat quiet and shaken after returning from the scene of the fiery crash.

Other church members gave some space to him and other survivors at the service. Only six of the passengers avoided significant injury.

They didn’t ask questions, only listened to those who chose to talk about the tragedy from which they had walked away, Martha said.

That was only the beginning as the congregation began trying to understand and seek comfort and healing after their devastating loss.

Martha, a Hodgenville native, had known some of the people who died for a decade or more.

Don, from Texas, had his own difficulties to contend with as he led 16 funerals in 48 hours.

Martha said that was hard for her husband. Health concerns prevented him from speaking to The News-Enterprise last week.

He had to be strong for the families depending on him, but being involved with so much loss of so many people he had known caused him to break down in privacy, she said.

Nearly all church members attended each funeral. That support made the burden of the suffering families just a little bit easier to bear, Martha said.

“We were not just a church,” she said. “We were a family. The support of each other was such a help to them.”

The church was open at all times the week after the crash.

Don offered counseling, and Emerge Ministries of Akron, Ohio, sent counselors to help.

Weeks passed by. Hurt and confusion about how God could have let something like the crash happen persisted among church members.

Every Sunday’s message was about forgiveness, supporting each other and trusting in the love and faith of God.

“We took it, I think, almost minute by minute, day by day,” she said.

Some church members immediately forgave Larry Wayne Mahoney, whose drunken driving caused the wreck. Others were angry for a while before they began to forgive and move forward with their lives, Martha said.

“You’re in different places at different times,” she said.

In their own home, Don and Martha were pleased to see their son begin to act more like himself.

Sometimes, he didn’t want to talk about the crash. Other times, the words poured out. The description was hard to listen to, but his parents hung on every word.

It was clear God was with the congregation through the tragedy, Martha said.

“The evidence was the comfort of the presence of the Holy Spirit,” she said.

The church’s attendance also reflected its resilience.

Martha said the church had always been tight-knit. She often called members, especially when they hadn’t made it to that week’s service.

“People want to know that they mean something to you, and that you know that they’re not there,” she said.

That closeness deepened as members leaned on each other. All the members who lost loved ones remained in the church until military orders took some away from the area.

Worshippers noticed that community, Martha said.

The close proximity to Fort Knox meant the congregation always included service members moving in and out, so a lot of the incoming members didn’t know about the church’s tragedy.

Still, membership increased from approximately 80 before the crash to about 500 during Easter two years later, Martha said.

The Tennisons left the church two years after the crash to travel as evangelists. They planned to return to Hardin County to spend the 25th anniversary of the crash with the families and survivors with whom they shared their grief.

“I hope they understand and realize how we allowed God to help us,” she said.

Amber Coulter can be reached at (270) 505-1746 or acoulter@thenewsenterprise.com.