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A car sits amid the rubble of the outer wall of the Lindsay Lane Baptist Church in Athens after Thursday's crash.
Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
A car sits amid the rubble of the outer wall of the Lindsay Lane Baptist Church in Athens after Thursday's crash.

Car crashes into church in Athens
Driver loses control reaching for cell phone; nobody seriously hurt, but close calls abound

By Holly Hollman
hhollman@decaturdaily.com 340-2445

ATHENS -- A dentist and chicken soup. Forty feet. A 9-inch wall. Timing.

Church leaders said those are the things God used to protect church staff Thursday at noon when a woman drove into Lindsay Lane Baptist Church.

Dusty McLemore, pastor of Lindsay Lane Baptist Church, left, and Bonnie Sutton after Thursday's crash. Sutton was trimming the church lawn when the car narrowly missed hitting him and plowed through the wall of McLemore's office. McLemore, thanks to a dental appointment and some chicken soup, was not at his desk.
Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
Dusty McLemore, pastor of Lindsay Lane Baptist Church, left, and Bonnie Sutton after Thursday's crash. Sutton was trimming the church lawn when the car narrowly missed hitting him and plowed through the wall of McLemore's office. McLemore, thanks to a dental appointment and some chicken soup, was not at his desk.
A dental appointment and a chicken soup lunch kept pastor Dusty McLemore from being at his desk when the driver drove through the counseling area of his office.

A distance of about 40 feet separated the car and 76-year-old Bonnie Sutton, who was trimming the church grounds.

The 9-inch wall separated McLemore's office from the office of education minister Sonny Schofield, who was at his desk when the car plowed through concrete.

Timing, mere seconds, kept McLemore's secretary, Sue Horton, from being in the car's path as she exited the parking lot in her vehicle.

"God blessed us," Schofield said. "That none of us was hurt is nothing but a blessing from the Lord."

Athens police Capt. Marty Bruce identified the car's driver as Joanne Brown, 40, of 19605 Cox Road, Athens.

"Brown stated her cell phone was ringing in her purse," Bruce said. "She reached to get the phone and lost control of her vehicle."

Schofield said the driver of a pickup told him that the car nearly hit him head-on. The truck's driver did not stay to talk to police.

Schofield said that according to what the pickup driver and Brown told him, the truck was traveling south on Lindsay Lane, and Brown was traveling north.

"She was reaching for her cell phone because it was ringing, and when she looked up, she was about to hit the truck head-on, so she swerved," Schofield said.

Driver overcorrected

Sgt. Frank Murphy looked at the markings on the road and grass, and said he can tell Brown did end up in the southbound lane and overcorrected. She crossed a ditch and drove through a grassy median in the church parking lot, crossed the exit lane and went into McLemore's office.

"I was almost to the exit, I was on my way to lunch, when I saw her come across the grass," Horton said. "She went just behind me."

Sutton said he was working with his back to the accident.

"I didn't hear anything over my Weed Eater until she hit the pavement behind me," he said.

When asked how close the car came to hitting him, Sutton said, "Too close," and then estimated the distance was about 40 feet.

Schofield said he was in his office when he heard a noise that "sounded like a bomb going off."

"Dusty's got a big picture on the wall that separates our offices, and my first thought was that it had fallen," Schofield said. "Then reality set in, and I realized it wouldn't have made that kind of noise."

Tense moment

Schofield said he looked out his window and saw only Sutton's weed cutter lying motionless in the grass. Then he peeked through the window in McLemore's office door and saw debris piled on a maroon car.

"At that point, I thought she must have driven over Mr. Sutton," Schofield said. "I couldn't see him, and I couldn't open the office door because the car pushed Dusty's couch against it."

Schofield hollered for someone to call 911, and then he saw Sutton outside.

Driver wedged in car

"When I got to him, he was shaking," Schofield said. "We tried to get to the driver, but she was wedged in. She was able to talk to us."

Athens Assistant Fire Chief Danny Southard said firefighters cut off the back top of the car to extract Brown. An ambulance took her to Athens-Limestone Hospital, where she was treated in the emergency room and released.

"When I drove up, I didn't know what in the world was going on," McLemore said. "I saw firetrucks and lights. Then I saw someone being rolled away on a gurney."

Dental appointment

McLemore said it was an unusual day because he did not have any counseling sessions scheduled. He did have a 10 a.m. dental appointment.

"After leaving the dentist, I knew I couldn't really eat anything, so I planned to come straight back to church," McLemore said. "I passed a Chick-fil-A and figured I could eat chicken soup; otherwise, I would have been sitting at my desk. I probably would have had a heart attack if I saw a car come crashing through next to me."

The car was inches from McLemore's desk.

Rescue workers used a tow truck and backhoe to remove the car from his office.

The car's impact destroyed a wall, table, two chairs, souvenirs and knick-knacks. Pieces of concrete, glass shards and gray dust covered the floor and furniture.

McLemore was unable to find in the rubble a vase he brought back from Africa.

He did salvage a hand-carved wooden bowl from Africa, although the rim was cracked and split.

"What's important is that we're all OK," McLemore said.

Structural damage

The church, which has about 1,100 members who attend, built McLemore's office during a 2002 expansion. The cost of the damage was unknown Thursday afternoon. It appeared the impact may have done structural damage to other walls.

Sutton watched workers toss chunks of concrete from the office and haul furniture out of the way. He listened as glass cracked under the pressure of workers' boots and slowly shook his head as if he couldn't believe what he was seeing.

After thanking God for their safety, Sutton and McLemore turned to humor to deal with the shock.

"I guess I can put in drive-through counseling," Mc-Lemore said.

"I guess I'll make it to 77," Sutton replied.

Then Sutton took a drink from his Styrofoam cup and added, "I've worked here five years, and I ain't never had a day like today. Nothing compares to this."

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