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Arkansas Town Struggles With Aftermath of Fiery Truck Crash

Associated Press

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 through the charred hull of his hardware store, destroyed in a fiery crash.

On Friday night, a truck apparently lost its brakes and barreled down a 45-degree hill, ramming a crowded station wagon, killing nine persons and setting off a fire that destroyed three downtown stores.

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

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Safety Board Investigation

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

“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.

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

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

“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.”

Large Trucks Banned

The city had banned large trucks from the steep road because of previous accidents, but the prohibition was often ignored, Assistant Police Chief Wayne Hicks said.

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The street is lined with restored historic buildings used in the filming of the television miniseries “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 baby sitter, 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 drugstore since he was 13. “But it could have been worse, and we’re going to make it,” he said.

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