FORD — The Rev. Joseph B. Fields Jr. had just left his study to start greeting worshippers arriving at the spring revival service Tuesday night at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Dinwiddie County. Then he heard the boom.
At first, he thought it might have been a train on the tracks behind his rural church, but he rushed outside to find the sound had come from the highway out front. A van carrying members of Shiloh Baptist Church in Blackstone had been hit from behind on U.S. 460 as it slowed to turn toward the parking lot of Mount Zion.
Fields, a 74-year-old Vietnam veteran, ran to the overturned van on the side of the road to try to pull people out. He saw a close friend inside. But he couldn’t get the door open.
The crash killed four members of Shiloh Baptist and injured the seven others who were inside the van as it headed to the revival at Mount Zion Baptist.
“This is like waking up from a nightmare. Like you’re in a dream,” Fields said Wednesday morning as he stood outside the church where he’s been the pastor for 44 years. “My heart just aches ... but we’re going to make it. We’re going to get through it.”
The accident occurred on the first night of a three-day revival event, shaking up two church communities as they tried to come together in fellowship.
Lafayette Dickens, a deacon at Shiloh Baptist, said the van was carrying choir members who had been asked to sing at the revival. Dickens said other choir members who were traveling in a separate car witnessed the horrific crash.
Dickens said he and other members of his church were in “absolute shock.”
“They were such good people,” he said of the four members who were killed. “It just hurts right now. We’ve never dealt with anything like this. We’re just taking it one day at a time.”
Authorities on Wednesday identified the four Blackstone residents who died in the crash: Constance Wynn, 85, a former Lunenburg County school teacher who served as a town councilwoman from 1987 to 2010; James Farley, 87, a former groundskeeper at Shiloh Baptist Church; Wartena Somerville, 36, an elementary school teacher and the mother of a young child; and Delois Williams, 72, chairperson of the church’s deacon board.
“The members of that church and the people in that van in particular were just good God-fearing servants of the Lord, going [Tuesday night] to worship the Lord,” said Blackstone Mayor Billy Coleburn. “So I tell people who’ve been upset, ‘Look, if you believe in God, there’s no doubt where they are this morning.’”
“Constance — I can hear her right now — she would put her hand on your shoulder, and she would say, ‘I am fine, I am with the Lord, and you’re going to be all right too.’ That’s exactly what she’d say.”
Shiloh Baptist “is a very influential church in Blackstone, they do a lot of outreach — very historic,” Coleburn noted. “When blacks didn’t have equal representation in this community, meetings were held at that church. They called it the Holy Ghost headquarters. And there were planning sessions there. And this town was in a Southern voting-rights suit. We were a very segregated community and were for many years.”
Blackstone Council President Barbara Thompson, who is a longtime member of the church, was one of the first African Americans — along with victim Constance Wynn — to be elected to the Blackstone Town Council in 1987.
Wynn, who for years taught school in neighboring Lunenburg, stepped down from the council in 2010 but Thompson has remained, and fills in as mayor when Coleburn is away or unavailable.
“Everybody that died was good people,” Thompson said as she was still processing the tragedy from her downtown office at Blackstone Realty, a short walk from the church.
When she learned of the crash Tuesday night, she was told that all 11 church members in the van had been taken to the hospital.
The person who told her was a church member who had planned to ride to the revival in the van. But the woman changed her mind, getting off the van, when a friend drove up in a car and the two ended up driving to Mount Zion together.
“She would have been in the van otherwise,” Thompson said.
When Thompson was told later Tuesday that four members of her congregation had died, “I just started crying, that’s all you can do at that point. You just feel sadness.”
Thompson was especially fond of Delois Williams, who had been named earlier this year as chairperson of Shiloh Baptist Church’s deacon board.
“She was just so special to me,” Thompson said. “She was a beautiful lady. She’s the kind of person you could confide in. If you needed to talk to somebody, she was the one you could go to. She would always say, ‘Just trust in God,’ for any problem you had. I will miss her so much.”
Victim James Farley was a former groundskeeper for the church who in recent years spent much of his time at a local McDonald’s, where the employees there “took care of him,” Thompson said.
“They loved him,” said Thompson, noting that Farley loved the restaurant’s chicken nuggets and would snack on a 20-piece order as he passed the time there. “McDonald’s was his favorite hangout, second to the church.”
“We’re going to miss all of them,” Thompson said. The church “is just like family. We have our ups and downs but we all love each other.”
On Wednesday, victim Wartena Somerville’s loved ones went to Mount Zion to try to find her cellphone. Her husband, Michael, wanted to get the photos and videos from the phone so he’d be able to show them to the 9-month-old daughter she left behind.
Michael Somerville said he was still in a state of disbelief.
“She knew and loved God. And she loved singing in the choir. And she loved her little baby and me.”
Michael Somerville said he occasionally drove the church bus, but he stayed home Tuesday to look after their daughter, Stephanie.
Ruby Ingram, a teacher from Victoria, called Wartena Somerville a “very loving mother, a dedicated teacher and a dedicated friend.”
“She loved to sing and that’s what she was headed to do,” Ingram said. “Sing for the Lord.”
Like others affected by the tragedy, Ingram said she was relying on her faith to carry on.
“You look to God and you get strength,” she said.
After Tuesday’s crash, three of the people in the van were flown to VCU Medical Center in Richmond in critical condition, and four others in the van were taken to hospitals by ambulance with serious injuries. The four who died all died at the scene.
According to state police, the Ford E-350 multi-passenger van was traveling west on U.S. 460 just before 7 p.m. when it slowed to make the right turn. A Ford F-450 truck pulling a trailer loaded with metal failed to stop in time and rear-ended the van, police said.
The van overturned several times before coming to rest on its side off the right side of the road. The truck ran off the left side of the road and struck a guardrail.
The driver of the truck, 47-year-old Robert Lee Allen of Norfolk, was taken by ambulance to a hospital for treatment of minor injuries.
State police said that charges were pending and that the investigation remained ongoing.
On Wednesday, Fields and other Mount Zion members returned to the church and picked up debris from the crash, as cars and trucks zoomed by the small wooden cross and brick sign that mark the church’s location just off U.S. 460.
There is no turn lane at the entrance to the 100-member church, forcing vehicles to slow down and make the turn directly from the highway. Fields said the church has never had an accident before, but will consider adding more signage to alert drivers when worship services are underway.
Deacon Ralph Ruffin, who oversees safety and security for the church and arrived just after the accident had happened, said he couldn’t sleep Wednesday night.
“I kept seeing the scene,” Ruffin said. “It just was something that you’ll never forget.”
The driver of the truck that struck the van was “distraught” over the accident, Fields said, and tried to help the van’s passengers despite being injured himself.
“He has to now — for the rest of his life — live with this,” Fields said. “I pray for him, his family. He’s going to really need some support.”
Fields said he had received calls of support from several other pastors and added that the revival services scheduled for Wednesday night and Thursday were to go on as planned.
“Be strong in the Lord,” Fields said when asked what he’s telling members of his congregation who are struggling. “Let your faith take over. He’ll bring you through it. It’s going to take a time for us to get ourselves back together.”
“We’re just trying to pick up the pieces,” said Dickens’ wife, Angela Dickens, an associate minister at Shiloh Baptist. “We know that God is good. We know that he is in control. We know there are some things you just can’t explain. We’re literally heartbroken.”
On Wednesday night, Mount Zion was filled by claps, songs and prayers as about 60 people congregated after the lights went out amid a passing storm.
“It’s been a rough 24 hours,” Fields told those gathered for the second night of the revival.
Ruffin affirmed that, amid the tragedy, the revival services will continue.
“I want to thank God for each and every one of you all that came out to help us with this revival,” he said. “I want to thank the ones that prayed for us last night after the terrible thing that happened.”
Before Wednesday’s service, a cross made of purple flowers was visible near where the van came to a rest.
“Life goes on,” said Frank Harris, a Mount Zion deacon. “We know where they are.”