Eight people died and 14 were injured Wednesday afternoon when a North Carolina church bus crashed into an SUV and a tractor-trailer after it blew a tire and crossed a median on Interstate 40 in eastern Tennessee, according to police and news outlets.
The fatalities included six of the 18 bus passengers, the big-rig driver and one of the three people in the Chevrolet Tahoe, said Tennessee Department of Safety spokeswoman Dalya Qualls. Fourteen people were injured, with four airlifted to area hospitals and eight transported by ambulance.
The crash occurred about 2 p.m. near the Interstate 81 split in Jefferson County, about 30 miles east of Knoxville, the Tennessee Highway Patrol said.
Qualls said the eastbound chartered bus veered into the westbound lanes after its left-front tire blew about 2 p.m., clipping the SUV before slamming into the tractor-trailer, which burst into flames, WBIR-TV reported.
The bus carried members of the Front Street Baptist Church in Statesville, N.C., Dionne Stutts, wife of the senior pastor, told the station.
I-40 was closed in both directions at mile marker 423, near Dandridge, and will remain closed until about 9 p.m., the state Department of Transportation said.
Parishioners, mostly 55 and older, were returning from the 17th annual Fall Jubilee in Gatlinburg, Tenn., a three-day gathering of gospel singers and speakers.
"We are devastated and just ask for the people to be praying," Stutts told the Associated Press. She said her husband, Tim, and another pastor went to the crash scene.
Inside the church, which has about 375 members, people wept and hugged each other. A service was scheduled for Wednesday night.
The seniors are a tight-knit group, Front Street Baptist youth pastor Jeremy Miller told the Statesville Record & Landmark.
"They do a lot of things together," he said. "This is one of many trips they've taken. They go and sing. They go and eat together."
"It will be a very difficult time for us, but we know God will pull us through," he added.