BLAKELY, Ga. — Brooke Jones heard the crash before she saw it.
Shortly after 6:30 p.m. Sunday, the 29-year-old nurse and her husband were at home off U.S. 27 about five miles south of downtown Blakely when they heard a loud noise.
“There were bodies all over the road,” the nurse said. “It was horrible. ... When we pulled up, there were bodies everywhere.”
A 15-person passenger van carrying 19 members of Tabernacle of Prayer and Deliverance of Columbus was headed to Quincy, Fla., for a revival when the right rear tire blew and it went out of control, a Georgia State Patrol spokesman said. Four passengers were killed — the pastor, Ronmyka D. Williams, 35; his daughter, Jasmin Shelly, 13; Cameron Freeman, 19; and Jennifer Walton, 20 — and the remaining 15 were injured, according to the Georgia State Patrol.
Before the night was over, 10 helicopters from as far away as Mobile, Ala., had airlifted victims to at least six hospitals from Tallahassee to Birmingham. The injured range in age from 11 months to adults in their 40s.
The van, a 1987 Dodge Ram Wagon, was being driven by Kenasha Seldon, 29, of Shiloh, Ga., according to the state patrol. It does not appear seat belts were in use at the time of the crash.
Troopers spent Monday going to hospitals in three states trying to identify the victims, spokesman Gordy Wright said.
The crash remains under investigation by the Colquitt Post of the Georgia State Patrol and the Specialized Collision Reconstruction Team.
ON THE SCENE
A woman who survived told investigators that “everybody just flew out of the van,” said Early County coroner Todd Hunter. “She said she remembered rolling, but didn’t know if she was rolling inside or outside of the van.”
When Brooke Jones got to the scene, the van was upright in the northbound lane.
All of the glass in the windows was gone, the result of rolling at least twice after it swerved out of the southbound lane, crossed the median and ended up in the northbound lane.
Jones said nothing in her training could have prepared her for what she saw. Everybody had been ejected from the vehicle, the Georgia State Patrol would say later. Most of the bodies lay within 15 yards of the van, Jones said.
“I hope I never see anything like that again,” she said.
Jones had beaten the emergency responders to the scene. She rushed to a woman face-down in the road and checked for a pulse. There was none.
She turned her attention to the others, trying to keep them awake and responding. Those who could respond said they “hurt all over,” Jones said.
When the ambulances arrived, Jones helped put victims on backboards and get them ready for transport to hospitals seven miles away in Blakely and 15 miles away in Colquitt.
Most of the injured were on the way to hospitals by 7:45 p.m., about an hour after the crash, Jones said.
From there, the emergency operation plans at two rural hospitals were put to an extreme test.
RURAL DISASTER PLAN
Half of the injured were taken to the emergency room at Pioneer Community Hospital of Early in Blakely, where two nurses and a physician assistant were on duty.
The other half went to Miller County Hospital in Colquitt, where there was one nurse and a physician assistant.
The job at the small community hospitals — both of them with a maximum of 25 beds — was to stabilize the injured so they could be moved to larger hospitals better equipped to treat the severe trauma injuries.
“We had a game plan before they got here,” said Miller County Hospital emergency room manager Ansley Smith. “We had designated certain areas, certain rooms and brought in extra X-ray and lab technicians.”
The first two in the door was a mother and her 1-year-old son, Smith said. Because of federal regulations she could not identify the patients, she said.
“What we were trying to do is get them stable enough to get them out of here,” Smith said.
At least one person was airlifted out of Colquitt, Smith said. None of the injured remained in the Miller County Hospital Monday night, a spokesperson said.
The hospital served its purpose, Smith said. “We had what we needed here to save lives.”
The same scene was playing out 20 miles away and one county over.
Jennifer Fortson, director of nursing at the Blakely hospital, said the staff swelled to about 30 in less than half an hour. A doctor, backup nurses, lab technicians and X-ray technicians were called to work as the disaster plan was activated.
“It was mass chaos,” she said. “It was organized, but it was still chaos.”
All the personnel at the Blakely hospital knew was it was a one-vehicle accident, Fortson said.
“We did not realize that it was a church group until the people started lining up at the door,” Fortson said.
Pastors, law enforcement officials and citizens showed up and offered to help. “It was so crowded you couldn’t find a parking place,” she said.
Even the helicopters had trouble finding a space.
“We had to use the Fred’s parking lot as a second helipad,” Fortson said. “That is the first time we have ever had to do that.”
In all, 10 helicopters from three different states — Georgia, Alabama and Florida — also responded.