The region held its breath yesterday, as news of a tragedy spread quickly through Northwest Indiana.
Shortly after noon, on a bright Saturday in mid-March, while headed to a semistate game at Lafayette Jefferson, a school bus carrying the Griffith High School basketball team was struck by a distracted driver. They were on I-65, headed southbound, near the DeMotte exit.
Many had been following the Panthers’ journey towards the state championship. Thousands of region residents, friends and family of the players feared the worst, silently praying for their safety and well-being. Slowly, images began to come through. Photos of the school bus, mangled and resting on its roof, shook all who saw it.
Dear God, please let those boys be ok…
Eventually, more updates came through. Somehow – miraculously – everyone survived. Beaten and battered, but alive. Many players were taken to nearby hospitals for treatment; one of the coaches was airlifted to a nearby hospital.
It was bad, but it could have been much, much worse.
The region relaxed a bit, but still prayed for those involved.
Perhaps one of the distinguishing virtues of the northwest Indiana region, one of the things that that really sets us apart, is the way Hoosiers pull together in times of trouble. Quickly, a prayer circle was announced in support of those injured in the crash.
Hundreds of people flooded into Central Park in Griffith, gathering together in a spirit of support and understanding, sharing their thoughts and prayers, wishing for the quick recovery of all those injured in Saturday’s crash. They gathered around the fieldhouse there, as Griffith city council member Rick Ryka took the microphone.
“This is - in a sense - a day of celebration and thanks,” said Ryka. “We would like to thank all the first responders on the scene; the fire and police departments. We are very thankful that our children are home safe.“
Clergy members from several churches in the area took turns leading the crowd in prayer. Hundreds of attendees, Griffith residents, family and friends of the players and others bowed their heads in thanks. Seated in the front row were several of the players who were involved in the accident – Anthony Quintero, Torin Dillon, and Kelston Haden.
“I thought I was gonna die,” said Dillon. “I thought I was dead.”
Quintero and Haden nodded.
“We were just in shock, trying to figure out what just happened… if it was real,” said Quintero. “I’m just glad that everyone’s gonna be ok.”
Griffith school board member Ray White was deeply affected by news of the incident, and had high praise for the efforts of the bus driver.
“It’s a blessing that there were no life-threatening injuries. It’s just amazing, what these kids have gone through over the last couple of years – they’ve just had one thing after another thrown at them. By the grace of God, Andy, the bus driver… she fought to keep that bus upright. She tried her best to keep our kids safe, and she almost had it until the bus was hit a second time and went off the road,” said White.
“Our little community really comes together. This just shows you,” said White, motioning at the hundreds of people gathered around the fieldhouse. “This one scared everybody, but we’re just really glad that everything turned out ok.”
Some people in the crowd had concerns about the players being able to recover in time to continue their march towards the state title.
At the end of the gathering, Panthers coach Gary Hayes took the mike to say a few words.
“We had an awesome time last Friday, getting ready to head downstate,”said Hayes. “Right now, we don’t know what the outcome of all this is going to be… what’s going to happen. But I’ve learned a lot about the Griffith community today, about the Griffith people. I can’t tell you how much it means to me, to see how much you care about this team, how you follow us. So whatever happens, we won, ok? We won.”
Hayes then turned the microphone over to Quintero and the Panthers players, who were greeted with overwhelming applause and cheers of “Go Panthers!” from the crowd.
“If this don’t make you a believer, I don’t know what will,” said Quintero.
Griffith is scheduled to face Marion in a semistate game this Wednesday.