‘God’s hand was in this’: Leesville returns kindness to community that assisted Tusky Valley in deadly I-70 bus crash‘God’s hand was in this’:

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Submitted Photo One of the two church buses that became stuck in snow on Azalea Rd. slid backwards and blocked the highway.

By Carol McIntire


     About 62 children from Grace Fellowship Church were expecting to spend the weekend of February 16-18 at FFA Camp Muskingum as part of their church’s winter Christian Trip. 

What the kids and church staff experienced was the kindness of other humans, overnight “camp out” on church pews and came away with memories and stories that will last a lifetime. 

“This is what the kingdom of God is all about,” said Keith Chapman, associate campus pastor of Grace Fellowship, the church in Pickerington where the trip originated. “Our church has been going to the FFA Camp for winter and summer camps for many years. We expected this trip to be no different than the others.”

The trip was anything but ordinary and offered the small Leesville area community the opportunity to show the Pickerington community the same kindness it showed to the Tusky Valley community following the fiery Interstate 70 bus tragedy last fall.

The day began with church officials looking at radar to track the path of forecasted snow.

“It didn’t look like anything more than one or two inches for that area,” Chapman explained. “Our thought was that we were going to be fine and decided to continue with the trip.” 

The church’s largest campus is in Pickerington, but there are also campuses in Jefferson, Upper Arlington and Lithopolis. One bus left from the Jefferson campus, while children from the Upper Arlington and Lithopolic campus were transported to Pickerington and three buses department from there, all bound for the FFA Camp. 

“The bus from Jefferson arrived at the camp first and reported the roads were getting pretty bad,” Chapman related. “Then we started to hear from the other three buses that the roads were not good, and they were going to take it slow.”

One of the three buses arrived at the camp, but the other two experienced a band of snow that followed about a three-mile-wide trek across Carroll County and dumped about 10 inches of snow in a short period of time. 

Two church buses, formerly school buses, became stuck on Azalea Rd. in the deep snow, one of them sliding sideways and blocking the roadway.

Word was relayed to church officials at the FFA Camp and Camp Director Todd Davis, suggested a phone call to the sheriff’s office on a cell phone so they could drop a pin to determine the exact location of the buses and dispatch the appropriate emergency services.

While church and FFA camp officials were organizing a response on  the east side of Leesville Lake, Leesville residents were organizing a response on the west side of the lake. 

Leesville area residents Steve Gartrell and his daughter, Melissa, came upon the situation and spoke with two of the group’s chaperones, who were parked at the top of the hill. 

After a call to the Carroll County Sheriff’s Department dispatch center for assistance, Melissa says her instinct to help others kicked in. 

“I knew there were several young kids on the buses, and they needed somewhere warm to stay,” she said. She made a couple phone calls, that last was to Mara Malterer, an active member of Leesville Faith Community Chapel. That was at 10:27 p.m.

Due to the weather conditions, Malterer was unable to return home after a Bible Study class and planned to spend the night at the home of her brother and sister-in-law.

“I immediately called our pastor and asked if I could get into the church,” Malterer related. “When she said, yes, my husband (Jordan) unlocked the church. I knew I needed to get there to help. My brother-in-law agreed to drive me to the church. We took the back way and came upon the wreck.

Things began to fall in place.

Regional EMS, which was already on scene, provided two ambulances to shuttle the kids from the site to the church along with Nick Turner, the Harrison County game warden. 

About 60 kids arrived at the church, scared and hungry.

“The kids hadn’t eaten since breakfast,” said Malterer. “They were hungry and scared.” My thought was, what can we feed these kids?”

She and Melissa Gartrell found five boxes of noodles and spaghetti sauce. They put a large pot of water on the stove and began boiling noodles. 

Regional EMS and Crossroads Pizza provided pizza and the kids enjoyed a spaghetti and pizza supper just after midnight. 

“It was something to see them all eating and not being hungry any longer,” Malterer related. “They were up playing and laughing. It was a great sight.”

Camp Wakonda donated the use of sleeping bags and the Carroll Golden Age Retreat and sheriff’s office provided blankets. 

The kids slept on the church pews in the upstairs of the church,” Malterer said, adding, “the kindness didn’t stop there.”

Another area resident learned of the situation and donated 12 dozen eggs for breakfast. 

“We put them in a big pan, scrambled and baked them,” Malterer related. “About 9 a.m. Saturday morning, they boarded the buses and headed for the FFA Camp.”

Chapman said he is “beyond grateful” for the kindness shown by the community.

“It seemed like everyone in the community was there,” he said. “When they heard it was a bus full of kids they jumped into action.”

“God’s hand was definitely in this,” Malterer said. “We were so happy to return the kindness that community showed to the Tusky Valley community and for everyone to make it to camp safely.”

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