Bluffton mourns victims of bus crash with memorial

BLUFFTON, Ohio -- A year ago, Duane Ortego and Gene Binion were part of a flight crew who transported Bluffton University baseball players and their families home from Atlanta after a bus crash killed five teammates and the bus driver and his wife.

The two AirTran Airways employees visited the university on Wednesday to join students, faculty and survivors of the crash in remembering the victims.

"It's like we've been long lost friends," said Ortego, who lives in Atlanta.

The pair still keep in touch with some of the players and their families. "It touched a lot of lives," said Binion, who is based in Orlando, Fla.

The Mennonite school held a memorial service Wednesday night, where families of the victims and survivors of the crash sat near each other and watched as photos of the five players flashed on a screen at the school's basketball gymnasium.

One photo showed Zach Arend holding his family's dog. Another showed David Betts playing his guitar.

"Each showed so much promise for a life that was not meant to be," university president James Harder said.

He said the school will be forever grateful for those who reached out to the players, their families and everyone else at Bluffton a year ago. He held high praise for those in Atlanta who cared for the families, including the AirTran crew members.

"These friends, and many from that outstanding city, cared for us when we needed it most," he said.

At the end of the service, seven seniors from this year's baseball team and the team's two coaches led the crowd of about 1,000 in a prayer.

Before the service, the school unveiled a memorial named Circle of Remembrance that was built alongside the baseball field.

It features a bronze sculpture called "Touching Home" -- a home plate marked by imprints of five cleats worn by the players killed in the crash.

Surrounding the plate are hand imprints left by the surviving players from last year's team. Some added their own special touches -- one put a halo above his imprint, others wrote the number five, and one drew a butterfly, a favorite of infielder Scott Harmon, a freshman who died in the crash.

Family who attended the private unveiling silently looked and touched the hand and cleat imprints, Harder said.

Afterward players' family members, including those of the victims, lingered at the memorial. Cody Holp's family left behind a bag of sunflower seeds on a bench in front of a plaque with his name. Next to Tyler Williams' plaque, his family left a poster with pictures of him in his Bluffton uniform.

"We never forget the players we lost," said coach James Grandey, who was in an Atlanta hospital a year ago. "They're with us every day." Grandey broke nearly every bone in his face in the accident.

Harder said the campus community continues to hurt and still thinks about the victims of the crash every day.