“He had been disappointed that he hadn’t played much the previous year and didn’t get to travel to Florida,” said Bluffton’s head baseball coach James Grandey. “He had come to me at the end of his freshman year asking what he needed to do to improve. I gave him a list, and when he came back in the fall, he had taken what I’d said to heart. He had become a different player.”
In fact, David Betts had improved so much that Grandey had put him in the season’s starting lineup.
But before John and Feroen Betts could board their plane, John Betts caught sight of a breaking CNN news story that gave him serious pause--an overturned charter bus splayed across Interstate 75 in Atlanta, Ga.
“The report said a bus carrying a Little League team traveling through Atlanta hit and rolled over an overpass,” John Betts said. “I had a very bad feeling because it was the same route and time that the Bluffton team was going through.”
Feroen Betts convinced his son to stick with their plans, boarding the flight from Dayton to Charlotte, N.C. Upon landing, John Betts received the news; the bus carrying the Bluffton baseball team had, in fact, careened off an overpass and plunged 19 feet to the highway below, closing Atlanta’s I-75 for five hours.
“My wife and I were both very concerned because it was about 8 p.m., and David would have called to let us know he was okay,” Betts said, “so we knew he was either dead or severely injured.”
Delta rerouted a flight to deliver John Betts to Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital, one of three facilities to which the accident victims had been transported. But he was told his son wasn’t there. Nor was he at Atlanta Medical Center. Nor Piedmont Hospital. There was only one more place emergency teams could suggest--the Fulton County morgue where the four students who were killed in the accident had been taken.
“So I went,” Betts said, “and that’s where I had to identify my son.”
Less than 30 minutes later, the grieving Betts had returned to Grady Memorial Hospital, to the group of tight-knit players who were struggling to process the day’s events--an unthinkable accident that claimed the lives of the motorcoach driver and his wife, injuries to 28 players and coaches, and the loss of four teammates--David Betts, Tyler Williams, Scott Harmon, and Cody Holp. A fifth player, Zach Arend, would die days later as a result of his injuries. John Betts made a promise to those players, and to himself.
“I told them something good would come of this tragedy,” Betts said, “because David was good.”
David Betts had not only excelled athletically, academically and musically, but interpersonally as well. Shortly before the accident, Bluffton University had hosted a community event for area school children. Twin boys approached David Betts, asking for his autograph. Betts disappeared and returned a few minutes later, handing them a baseball that held not only his signature, but covered with the signatures of all the players.
“That’s the kind of legacy he left,” John Betts said. “People don’t remember you because you went to all-state or hit a grand slam, but because of the kind of person you were. David knew it was important to be good to people, to show random acts of kindness.”
Now that promise John Betts made to the Bluffton baseball team five years ago has been fulfilled. On Friday, July 6, President Barack Obama signed into law the bipartisan Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act authored by U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) in response to the 2007 Bluffton University bus accident.
The new law, according to Sen. Brown’s press secretary, Allison Preiss, will, among other things, require motorcoaches to be equipped with safety belts, stronger seating systems, reinforced roofs, anti-ejection glazing on windows, reduced interior flammability, and enhanced commercial driver training to improve tour bus safety and reduce driver fatigue.
“Stronger bus standards are long overdue,” Sen. Brown said. “By equipping buses with common sense safety measures, we can help prevent deaths and minimize injuries. Simply put, this bill will help save lives.”
According to the American Bus Association, 750 million passengers travel by motorcoach annually, 65 percent of which are students and senior citizens. The majority of motorcoach companies operate fleets of 10 vehicles or fewer. Husband and wife team Dave and Irene Swartzentruber and son, Wendyl Swartzentruber, own and operate one such company, Pioneer Trails of Millersburg, which has been carrying customers from Holmes County and beyond across the continental United States and Canada for 29 years. While their 12 motorcoaches are routinely inspected for safety, and drivers meet all Department of Transportation requirements to prevent fatigue, their vehicles, like most motorcoaches, do not include safety belts or roof reinforcements, which could be required in all existing motorcoaches within 18 months and all new motorcoaches after two years. Even considering the 2007 Bluffton accident, and those in Washington State, Virginia and New York that claimed dozens of lives in 2011, Dave Swartzentruber maintains that motorcoach travel is still the safest mode of transportation.
“If there’s a motorcoach accident and a few people are killed,” Swartzentruber said, “that’s a small number compared to the amount of travel nationwide. Personally, I’d rather travel in a bus than a truck, car or airplane, because I think it’s still the safest way.”
Even so, Swartzentruber said, Pioneer Trails will do whatever is necessary to comply with the new law, and stressed that his ultimate goal is to run a safe operation, though the required changes could increase customers’ travel costs.
“When you have millions of dollars already invested in buses,” Swartzentruber said, “and then you have to put in new seats with seat belts, you’d have to spend about $60,000 adding those new seats.”
But for John Betts and his wife, Joy, that’s a small price to pay for saving even one life.
“The fact is,” John Betts said, “Sen. Brown did what no one in the last 45 years has been able to do--to get important motorcoach safety laws passed.”
Sen. Brown said the enactment of this law wouldn’t have happened without the tireless advocacy of John and Joy Betts, who turned their grief into action.
That, Bluffton coach James Grandey said, is because John Betts is a determined person whose apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
“David was one of the most determined players I’ve ever coached or will ever coach,” Grandey said. “He took that determination into everything he did, from the classroom to the playing field.”
Bluffton University president Dr. James M. Harder said the university is very pleased that the House and Senate have passed legislation that will result in enhancements to motorcoach safety.
“We applaud the efforts of Senators Brown and [Texas Sen. Kay Bailey] Hutchison to steward this bill. We also express deep appreciation to John and Joy Betts and family for their passion and perseverance for improved safety enhancements as a way to remember the lives of their son David and the lives of Zachary, Scott, Cody, Tyler and all the players and coaches from the 2007 baseball team. We are thankful for the improvements that will protect future passengers on motor coaches.”
“We’re very happy about the bill,” John Betts said. “Our family feels very good that people traveling by motorcoach will be that much more safe.”
And so, out of tragedy comes the promise, and the fruition, of something good.
“It didn’t bring David back,” Betts said. “But it honors him and all the victims who died and the many thousands who are permanently disabled due to motorcoach crashes.”
Published: July 10, 2012