By Brian Blackwell, Message Staff Writer
DEVILLE – Twenty-four living miracles returned back to Philadelphia Baptist Church late Saturday, nearly 30 hours after surviving a serious bus accident in Florida on the way to a church camp.
Those students and adult chaperons, along with nearly 40 other students and adults, walked into the church welcome center to a roar of applause, welcome home signs, balloons and plenty of hugs with their loved ones.
“Today is a good day because we all were able to come home and to be able to come home alive and basically in really good shape,” Pastor Philip Robertson told the crowd of nearly 200. “There’s no way from a human standpoint that everybody should have walked away from that accident alive.
“It shouldn’t’ have happened,” he continued. “There should have been some fatalities, but there weren’t. Death knocked on the door and God said not today. They will live.”
The crash was reported at 3:10 pm on Friday, just west of State Road 331 near DeFuniak Springs, Fla., according to the Florida Highway Patrol. The 30-passenger bus carrying youth and chaperons from the church left the roadway and hit a tree.
Twenty-five were taken to four different area hospitals for treatment, though none received life-threatening injuries. Just one of the youth involved in the accident was unable to return, though church officials are hopeful she will be back home by early next week.
The remaining 40 members of the church party were in a second bus and passenger van that were traveling with the bus that wrecked. They were taken to DeFuniak Springs Community Center for the night.
The witness by the students following the accident was noticed by all who came in contact with them, according to a first responder to the accident. A post on Philadelphia Ministry Assistant Debbie Cole Hale’s Facebook page cited a comment by Mary Culbertson.
“What an amazing group of resilient children!! I was honored to be involved as one of the first responders at the Community Center and each child I spoke to blessed me immensely. They were nervous, shaken but strong in their faith. Each one had called home. The people in charge from their home church worked diligently, non-stop to notify and locate all of the injured. God was watching over this group and unfortunately, their trip to Florida came to an end before it began but the good news is, they are all coming home. The bond between these 63 teens was an amazing sight to behold.”
Robertson also praised the students’ response, as well as the diligence by the adult chaperons.
“They were like an army,” he said. “They were there. They were doing everything they needed to do, no doubt guided by the holy spirit.”
Though students were not available for comment because of their delayed arrival at the church shortly before 10 pm on Saturday, eighth grader Rebekah Daigrepont connected with the students not long after the bus accident occurred.
Daigrepont, who knows many of the youth traveling on the trip, called the moment surreal.
“It didn’t process with me at first,” she recalled.
She believes God strategically placed the students He wanted on the bus and prompted some of them to move seats or the placement of their body only moments before the accident occurred.
“Many of my friends said they heard an audible voice telling them to move, right before the accident took place,” Daigrepont said. “That was definitely a God thing.”
Ricky Belgard, prayer minister at Philadelphia Baptist, also believes God’s hand was on the youth and chaperons in the bus that crashed.
When Belgard and others at the church learned of the accident, they contacted the parents and the more than 200 prayer partners who serve as part of the church’s prayer ministry. As they received more information, they then notified the church family and many more prayers were lifted up to God.
The prayer chain then grew as news got out. A number of churches in the area sent out text and emails asking for immediate prayer for all those involved.
“God in His providence had His hand on the youth,” he said. “He is our shield. We were praying for a shield of safety as they traveled even before the accident. As you look at the pictures you can truly see Gods hand over the youth because it easily could have been tragic.”
Before the youth and chaperons returned to the church, Belgard and other church staff led a time of prayer in the worship center.
Among those who spoke was Derek Griffin, the driver of the bus involved in the accident. He complimented the youth and chaperons on their resilience in the situation.
“I’m just very grateful for the prayers,” Griffin said. “We felt the prayers. I’m just glad to be here.”
Another person who spoke was Jessie Campbell, who works with many of those who traveled on the trip as a youth department worker.
“Today I was thinking how things happen like this,” he said. “The devil thinks he’s got them, but God has a purpose for them and He’ll use them for that purpose. For them to one day be able to say ‘look what I went through’ and share with others – it’ll be an awesome testimony for them.”
Heather Stracener was among the parents thankful her student was not killed in the accident.
After the accident, Stracener learned that her son, Zachary, was among those on the bus that crashed.
“You don’t get any texts so you think the worst,” she recalled. “Then when I got a call from him saying ‘I’m okay’, there’s nothing much sweeter I’ve ever heard.”
She said Zachary and others in the youth group were praying before the trip that God would show up in a might way.
“On Thursday Zachary and his friends were so giddy about going to church camp,” she said. “They couldn’t wait to see what God will do. He definitely showed up and showed off yesterday afternoon.
“We’re so thankful we don’t have 25 funerals we are planning,” she continued. “We are thankful and are thankful to see our baby.”
Truly, the near-death experience was a reminder to all on the trip about the importance of life and not taking any day for granted.
“Remember every day to hug the people you love and tell them how much you love them, because our lives are like a vapor, here today and gone tomorrow,” Robertson told the crowd gathered Saturday night. “We’re going to do a lot of hugging tonight but do it everyday. Every single day, hug em up, tell em how much you love them and thank God for the incredible gift of life.”