By Hayes Hickman
The Knoxville News-Sentinel
SEYMOUR, Tenn. — The close-knit family of parishioners at a small Blount County church are in shock after two of their members were killed and several others injured when their church van was struck head-on as it returned from a weekend youth retreat this morning.
Two adults and 11 middle and high school-age children were returning from a trip to Gatlinburg when their van was struck by a Chevy Blazer along northbound Chapman Highway in Sevier County, according to Wes Gibson, a youth group leader with Cedar Grove Baptist Church in Blount County.
"Somebody crossed the centerline and hit the van head-on, knocked it down an embankment," said Gibson. "And then the van caught fire."
The crash occurred at approximately 9:32 a.m. on Chapman Highway at Zion Hill Church Road in Seymour, the Tennessee Highway Patrol.
The van's driver, Jeff Trussell, 45, of Maryville, and passenger Courtney Kaliszewski, age unavailable, both were killed, according to THP spokeswoman Dalya Qualls.
The driver of the Blazer, 21-year-old Tyler Schaeffer, of Seymour, was transported to the University of Tennessee Medical Center, where a nursing supervisor said he remained in critical condition this evening.
Two among the injured were transported to East Tennessee Children's Hospital, he said, while nine others were taken to the UT Medical Center, Gibson said. Their names were not yet available.
The Seymour Volunteer Fire Department and the Tennessee Highway Patrol responded, along with two Lifestar helicopters.
Friends and family among the 80-member church were gathering to pray this afternoon at UT Medical Center, where two of the victims were in surgery, said Gibson, his voice shaking.
"Right now it's still just shock," he said."But we've got plenty of church and community support."
Passer-by James Settle, 18, was headed to church when he pulled up on the scene to find smoke billowing from the wreckage.
The van apparently rolled down a steep embankment and came to rest upright in a field off the roadway, while the second vehicle, a Chevy Blazer, was knocked on its side, he said.
The Maryville resident, who said he has some limited training as a volunteer firefighter, ran toward the mangled van to help others already attempting to pull the victims clear as flames consumed the vehicle.
"The flames were coming up too far," said Settle, who was pushed back by the fire before he or others could reach the driver or a teenage girl who remained trapped inside. "From what we could tell, they were already dead. ... I felt bad, but it's all I could do."
According to church members, the van was one of several vehicles in the returning church group.
Settle said he could only stand by among the victims' family members and other church members as they watched helplessly in the chaotic moments that followed.
"You can't do anything by just stand there," he said, "and hold people you've never met before."
Army reservist Lexie Williams, 29, of Maryville, also was left wrestling with the doubt of whether she could have done more. She, too, was among the group of people who rushed to the crash scene and tried to free the victims trapped inside the burning van.
Williams said she could not find a pulse from the driver, but tried anyway to pull him clear as the man's wife stood nearby pleading for someone to save him.
"I pulled on him and pulled on him," she said. "The flames started rolling in ... and I could feel the heat on my arms."
Williams and the others soon were forced to back away. She held the man's wife clear of the wreck as it became engulfed by the fire as the last two victims remained inside.
"It's an image you can't shake," Williams said.
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