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Church group bus tragedy goes to trial

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(Court TV) -- A group of teens en route to church camp on June 24, 2002, met with tragedy when their tour bus collided with a concrete pillar near Terrell, Texas.

The side of the bus peeled off, leaving dozens of passengers struggling to escape the wreckage as battery acid and fuel seared their skin. Four youths died, as did the bus driver, who had cocaine and valium in his system at the time of the crash.

Seventeen surviving passengers sued Eric Rockmore, the owner of the charter bus company, Discovery Tours. The plaintiffs charged that Rockmore failed to take simple steps to ensure that a safe, responsible person sat behind the wheel that morning.

The injuries of the teens, who were all part of a group from Metro Church in Dallas, ranged from severe brain damage to emotional trauma. The medical expenses and life care plan estimates added up to tens of millions of dollars.

The defense, however, contended it was unlikely Rockmore's actions contributed to the horrific crash. In fact, he said, Rockmore and his family have suffered as well -- watching everything they've worked for be destroyed by an army of aggressive plaintiffs' attorneys.

The case went to trial in August 2004 before Judge Mary Murphy.

The crash

On Monday, June 24, 2002, nearly 100 teens gathered in the Metro Church parking lot to leave for church camp in Louisiana. In spite of one of the buses being nearly two hours late to pick the group up, the camp participants got on their way at 8:30 a.m. A caravan, led by the church's pastor in an SUV, was followed by two buses full of teens and another car carrying chaperones Fred and Janet Gary.

The Garys watched as the second bus took a sharp turn and drifted out of its lane, prompting Fred Gary to call the pastor on his cell phone. They decided that all the vehicles would pull over at the first safe area to see if there was a problem, but it wasn't soon enough. The bus crossed the shoulder and barreled through a guardrail to collide with the concrete support column of an overpass.

Some of the teens were thrown as far as 35 feet, while others were trapped in the wreckage. Ashley Pavelko, 14, immobilized by crushed hips and broken legs, struggled to keep her head above the flow of diesel fuel and searing battery acid.

DJ Perkins, 14, screamed for help as he lay pinned by debris. Lying on top of him was 16-year-old Lindsay Kimmons. DJ watched Lindsay struggle to open her eyes, but after a few labored breaths, Lindsay died. When DJ was later freed, Lindsay's blood, brain matter and urine covered his clothing.

Also killed in the crash were Amanda Maxwell, 13, Michelle Chaney, 14, and Michael Freeman, 12. Carter, the 51-year-old driver, was likely killed on impact.

As dozens of emergency workers and passers by struggled in the chaos, bus company owner Eric Rockmore arrived at the wreckage, along with James Green, the owner of Green's Transportation who had subcontracted the trip to Rockmore. Both men cried, according to witnesses.

Frantic parents, meanwhile, were left for hours with no word of their children's whereabouts or condition. Traffic backed up as children were rushed by ambulances and helicopters to various hospitals in the area. The mayhem slowly moved from the side of the highway to crowded emergency rooms.

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