Passengers, driver escape injury after tour bus accident on Roan Mountain

By Abby Morris and
Lesley Jenkins

Star Staff;

A beautiful day atop Roan Mountain nearly became tragic Thursday afternoon when a tour bus full of passengers had mechanical difficulties and was forced into a ditch. By the grace of God, according to the passengers on board, no one was injured in the accident.
   The bus, owned by Mayes Bus Lines of Knoxville, was chartered by a group of people from Broadway Baptist Church located in Maryville, Tennessee. A total of 37 passengers were on board with the driver when the accident occurred.
   The group was returning from a day's excursion at the Rhododendron Gardens when the brakes on the bus began to fail. "The bus was traveling north on State Route 143, and the driver stated that he lost air pressure in his brakes," Tennessee Highway Patrol Trooper Jason Andes said. "He stated he was traveling approximately 16 miles per hour. He said that once he knew the brakes were not going to hold him back, he tried to gear down, and the bus started picking up speed, so he had to find some place to put the vehicle into the ditch."
   Andes said the driver of the bus, Robert Marlow, 46, should be commended for the way he handled the situation. "He prevented a lot of injuries and saved a lot of lives by putting the bus into the ditch."
   Marlow said this was the first time something like this happened to him. "I just lost air pressure and the brakes got hot and I couldn't stop it. I just tried to find a good place to ditch it. It looks like I picked a pretty good place," he said.
   According to Andes, the vehicle slid approximately 317 feet in the ditch before coming to a stop approximately one mile south of Jack's Supermarket on Highway 143.
   The passengers on the bus, many of whom were elderly, were somewhat shaken up but not injured.
   "I slid right out into the aisle," said Dorothy Vandergriff. "The bus driver had an angel watching over him. He sure used his head."
   Calvin Lacey, from Talbot, said when the driver told them he had to put the bus into the ditch he was worried. "I thought it was going to turn over, but, thankfully, it didn't," he said. "I was very glad he chose this side (of the road). I was sitting on the opposite side looking off the mountain, so I knew we didn't want to go that way."
   Many of the passengers turned to their faith in God to bring them through the situation. "All the time we was praying that the Lord would give us a safe landing," said Hazel Cox, an 82-year-old woman with a heart condition. Cox was examined by emergency responders who determined that she was fine. "My heart was in my mouth. It was something I had never experienced before."
   According to the passengers, Marlow had warned them when the problem with the brakes started. "I was scared before it actually happened. We knew about the problem for about 20 minutes. It (the brakes) made a noise, and we could smell it," said Lillian Gamble. "I could see his (the driver) face the whole time through the rear view mirror. He had perspiration all over his forehead."
   Mildred Anglin, who was sharing a seat on the bus with Gamble, said that she could see the driver as well and saw that he had tears in his eyes. "We knew what was going to happen, but we just didn't know when," she said. "We know God was with us."
   Some on the bus offered comfort to fellow passengers as they prepared for the inevitable. "Tom Hodges (minister of education at Broadway Baptist) was sitting in the seat beside the driver, and he kept laughing and talking trying to keep us calm," Anglin said. "We couldn't hear what he was saying but he has a laugh you would know."
   Hodges said that one of his main concerns was trying to keep everyone calm in the situation. "I have no idea what I said. I had a real sense that we were in trouble. But the Lord took care of us," he said. "Nobody panicked when it happened."
   Hodges then laughed and said, "I don't think their families will let me take them anywhere else again."