The sun already had set as a caravan of church members snaked along the rural roads of Berkeley County on their way to a choir performance in Russellville.

After a brief stop for gas in Jamestown Wednesday evening, three vehicles from the Lighthouse of Jesus Christ Church in Georgetown returned to U.S. Highway 17A, drawing closer to their destination, Bethel Miracle Temple.

Suddenly, the driver of a church van shouted to his 10 passengers to hold on.

“Everything happened so fast,” said Bishop Floyd Knowlin, who was in the van. “He swerved to the right and we felt the trailer that was hooked to the van. We felt it just shook the whole van and I saw sparks from the highway.”

Shaken up from the near-crash, Knowlin wheeled around and saw a fire outside behind the van. That's when he realized the sport utility vehicle carrying four of his church members was engulfed in flames.

Wreckage littered the roadway from the 7:30 p.m. crash that authorities said involved five vehicles. The scene was so chaotic and confusing that state troopers are still trying to figure out just what happened.

In the immediate aftermath, emergency workers focused simply on saving lives. Still, four people died before they made it to a hospital.

Inside the church SUV were choir members Edith Jackson, Angie Arthur and her husband, Johnny, all of Georgetown, and Loris resident Melvira Johnson, according to Knowlin.

Jackson, 55, Johnson, 51, and Angie Arthur, 45, died from thermal burns when the van burst into flames, said Berkeley County Coroner Bill Salisbury. Johnny Arthur was badly injured, and was said to be in critical condition after the wreck.

The driver of another car involved in the crash died from body trauma. Salisbury identified him as 36-year-old Steven Morse of Jamestown. Morse, who was married, was a machine operator at Albany International and an avid outdoorsman.

Knowlin visited Johnny Arthur Thursday at Medical University Hospital and said the couple's two twin teenage boys were by their father's side. Knowlin tried to be of comfort, but the whole experience left him rattled.

“I believe I've seen too much last night,” Knowlin said.

The aftermath

State troopers worked Thursday to reconstruct the crash and determine its cause. Knowlin told The Post and Courier he knows what happened — a car coming from the opposite direction on 17A tried to pass two other cars and struck the trailer carrying the church band's instruments.

The impact sent vehicles spinning along this quiet, rural patch of 17A near Freefall Lane, which is home to little more than the occasional single-family house or community church.

One of the five vehicles involved spun in front of Gene Grissitte's home and landed in a ditch that lines his front yard. A man appeared to have been thrown from the vehicle and landed on his property.

The vehicle's battery, which also was ejected, still lay in his yard Thursday morning. Grissitte said he saw another body covered with a sheet across the street from his home.

“A lot went through my mind when I saw that,” Grissitte said. “I'm sorry for all those people who lost their lives.”

He said authorities blocked off the road until about 2:30 a.m. to clear the scene.

Debra Brown, a neighbor of Grissitte, said she came across the wreckage as she was coming home from Bible study. She saw the body in his yard, and spotted a burning car containing three bodies.

She turned around before authorities could remove them from the vehicle. “I didn't want to see that.”

Brown said she headed back to nearby Jerusalem Baptist Church, which later opened its doors to grieving family members for two hours Wednesday night.

Church members offered the families kind words as they sat in shock, wiping tears.

A grieving church

Knowlin also was in tears Thursday afternoon when he returned to his Georgetown church on Johnson Road and was embraced by church members in the parking lot.

He hadn't slept all night since witnessing the deaths of his friends and fellow worshipers. “This is a storm for Lighthouse. Lighthouse is a closely knitted church,” he said.

It's a storm Knowlin said they will weather as they prepare to celebrate the lives of those lost. Inside the church, he pointed to the spots where the members once sat.

Jackson was president of the usher boards at the church and taught Sunday school. “Her students will miss her like crazy,” Knowlin said.

Johnson served on the church trustee board and was engaged to be married, Knowlin said.

Angie Arthur was a deaconess for the church and most recently worked as a cook at Aunny's restaurant on Front Street. She had worked there for about two years, according to the owner, Andrea Johnson.

“I was shocked. I was in disbelief. It really didn't hit me until this morning,” she said Thursday at the restaurant. “There's a loss we all have to encounter, but I'm at peace because I know where she's at.”

The choir would travel with the bishop around the state. The calendar for November alone on the church's website showed trips to Moncks Corner and St. Stephen.

“This is the first accident we've really had like this,” Knowlin said.

The wreck has shaken the church to its core, but on Sunday it will hold its regularly scheduled service. Knowlin said he will comfort those with grieving hearts, but finds comfort himself in his faith.

“The Bible said in 1 Corinthians to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, so they are with the Lord,” he said.

Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or Christina Elmore at 937-5908.