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‘This Can’t Happen In Our Little Town’

June 23, 1985 GMT

VAN BUREN, Ark. (AP) _ Every Sunday for 52 years, deacon Dewitt Bates has stationed himself at the door of First Baptist Church to greet visitors, and he was there Sunday after a grim weekend of raking though the charred hull of his hardware store, destroyed in a fiery crash that killed nine people.

On Friday night, a truck apparently lost its brakes and barreled down a hill, ramming a crowded station wagon and setting off a fire that destroyed three downtown stores. Nine people died - two in the truck and seven in the car. The hill was posted off-limits to trucks.


″I have been considering retiring for some time. This made up my mind. I don’t think it would be practical to start all over again,″ Bates said.

″Everybody says this can’t happen in our little town,″ said Rev. Stanley Daniel, pastor of the church.

Funerals were scheduled Monday and Tuesday for the seven Van Buren residents who were in the station wagon.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board were to begin investigating Sunday. Autopsies were scheduled on the bodies of the two occupants of the truck, loaded with 72,000 pounds of pork, police said.

″Our town is in shock. This will leave scars. You read about this happening, but it’s always somewhere else,″ Daniel said. ″We are all saddened, and wish we had done something more to keep those trucks off the hill coming into town.″

The city had banned large trucks from the road because of previous accidents, but the prohibition was often ignored, said assistant police chief Wayne Hicks. ″We give tickets every day for trucks being off the truck route.″

″The store meant a lot to me. It was my life,″ Bates said. He bought it during the Depression, taking over a business that had operated in the same location since the 1880s.

The street is lined with restored historic buildings used in the filming of the television mini-series ″The Blue and The Gray,″ about the Civil War.

Ron Coker, whose drugstore and home were in one of the burned buildings, said his family left about 20 minutes before the crash. His children - Deanne, 6, and Marcus, 4 - would usually have been at home with a babysitter, he said, but none was available.

″The kids were at my folks,″ he said. ″We really felt like the Lord just took care of us.″


″I feel like a real part of me is gone,″ said Coker, who worked at the drug store since he was 13. ″But it could have been worse and we’re going to make it,″ he said.

Services were scheduled Monday for Winnie Kay Burt, 24, and her daughters, Kristie Parrish, 8, and Brenna Parrish, 4. Tuesday services were scheduled for Winnie Burt’s husband, Billy Burt, 30; Kathy Yvonne Owenby, 28; her husband, Ronald Randy Owenby Sr., 34; and their son, Ronald Randy Owenby II, 3. Billy Burt and Kathy Owenby were brother and sister.

The occupants of the truck were identified as Dave R. Atchley Jr., 20, and his wife, Rae Atchley, 17, both of Niagara Falls, N.Y. Officers did not know who was driving.