Bluffton baseball team
By Mark Griffin
Special to The Press
Cody McPherson made the dean's list at Bluffton University last quarter and is on his way to one day becoming a high school teacher.
The history education major, a 2006 Lake graduate who also plays baseball as a pitcher/outfielder, never could have imagined what would take place in the early morning hours of March 4.
McPherson, 19, and the rest of the baseball team were aboard a charter bus outside Atlanta, headed to Florida to play some spring ball. It was about 5:30 a.m.
"Everyone was sleeping," McPherson said.
Before they knew it, the bus careened over a wall, dropped about 30 feet and landed on I-75. McPherson was alive, but four of his teammates weren't.
McPherson said the thought of ever being involved in a serious bus accident had never crossed his mind.
"I've thought about maybe our bus hitting a car or someone running into the back of a bus," he said, “but not falling off a bridge. Not in my wildest dreams. That's something that happens in movies.”
McPherson said there were 35 people on the bus, including 28 players and five coaches. Before he knew it, he said, "I was on the floor on the aisleway."
"The next thing I remember was being tossed between the poles underneath the seats like a pinball," McPherson said. "I remember being rolled as we were falling and then just one final thud. When I came to, obviously there was lots of yelling. When I woke up there were already some pedestrians outside helping people off."
"My teammates were telling me to get off the bus, there's gasoline. I will never forget that smell. It was like the strongest odor. It was diesel (fuel). The less injured of the guys helped the other guys to a cement guardrail. It seems like 10 seconds after the accident, the ambulance and the paramedics were at the scene already."
McPherson said another charter bus took the injured players to the hospital. Four of McPherson's teammates, as well as the bus driver and the driver's wife, were not so lucky.
According to reports, the driver, Jerome Niemeyer, mistook the exit ramp for another highway lane and took the curve at full speed. Weather conditions were not a factor in the crash, which ended with the charter bus resting on its side on I-75.
McPherson managed to walk away from the accident with bruised legs and a severely swollen ankle. Teammates David Betts, Tyler Williams, Scott Harmon, and Cody Holp were pronounced dead at the scene.
"I'm truly blessed," McPherson said. "I have a couple bruises and a head injury. It hurt to walk at the time, and other people looked much worse than me. My head wasn't bleeding too much. I was still in shock, obviously."
Accident hits home
McPherson and 14 other teammates were bused to Grady Memorial Hospital.
McPherson, who was released from the hospital at 7 p.m. last Friday night, said the loss of four teammates has hit everyone hard.
"We were a really tight team," he said. "One of the things the school strived for was a close, tight community — especially a baseball team. It’s like a family. It’s hard. Time heals but it’s not going to be an easy process. We were all messing around before it happened. We were just enjoying all being together."
Dave and Christie McPherson found out about the accident about 25 minutes after the crash, when their son called from a cell phone.
"I don’t know whose phone it was, but I remember they were passing around a cell phone," McPherson recalled. 'I woke them up with the call. I just said we were in a bus accident and told them it was really bad and somehow we fell off the bridge. I couldn’t think of what else to say."
Dave McPherson was scheduled to fly down to Tampa, Fla., to watch Cody play baseball the same day as the accident. When Dave and his wife, the principal at Olney Elementary, got the early-morning call from Cody telling them about the crash, they initially thought it was a school employee calling off work for the day.
"When Cody called and said, ‘Dad,’ I knew something was wrong," Dave said. "I know his voice. He said, ‘We got in an accident and I’m laying alongside the road,’ and he knew some of this teammates were hurt really bad. I tried to get him to explain where it was.
"I thought, they’re traveling south and I was thinking about bridges with gorges and ravines and hills. I never thought it would be a bridge in Atlanta. We weren’t even thinking anything like this."
After Cody's initial call to his parents, the McPhersons didn’t hear from their son again until 7:20 p.m. Friday night.
"We felt better," Dave said. "Until we heard his voice again, we didn’t know if he was in shock, or if he was okay. We didn't know what kind of condition he was in. We are very blessed that God took care of him. It’s a time to rejoice for us, but yet you can’t because you think of those four teammates of his and the bus driver and his wife and their family. It’s going to be a long mourning for everybody."
Dave and Christie flew to Tampa and drove a rental car to Atlanta to pick up Cody. He was, needless to say, glad to see them.
"That was emotional, definitely," said McPherson, who got back home Sunday afternoon. "I was definitely happy to see them. There is no way that any of us should still be alive."
The city of Atlanta gave its support to the Bluffton team. Wal-Mart donated clothes to the players, whose own clothing was soaked with diesel fuel. Chick-fil-A brought food right to the hospital, and Dick's Sporting Goods donated large duffle bags.
"It was so well done," Dave said. "We just can't praise how the Red Cross handled what was going on down there. That city stepped to the plate and took care of all these kids and families."
Cody McPherson doesn’t know if Bluffton's baseball season has been canceled, and he doesn't care.
"We haven't talked about that," he said. "It’s not really the important thing right now. It's the farthest thing from my mind."
In the short time since the accident, McPherson admitted he’s done a lot of soul searching. He said he feels “blessed” to still be alive.
"One very important aspect of my life is my faith," he said. "For some reason or another Jesus decided it’s not my time and there is more for me to do here. He decided for those four guys, it was time to go home. He’s telling us, here’s your second chance. You’re not done here yet.
"Stuff happens sometimes and it’s not our place to understand why it happened. You just have to know it happened and we have to strengthen others around us to get through it."
McPherson said Bluffton University has scheduled a memorial ceremony for Monday, and classes resume Tuesday morning. He knows that for he and his teammates, their friends and families, their lives will never be the same.
"We'll just try to pick up where we left off, hopefully," McPherson said. "You just have to keep pressing on."