NEW PORT RICHEY — It was still dark when the bus and van rolled out of the church parking lot.
Sixty people, mostly giddy middle schoolers, rolled up Interstate 75 on their way to a winter youth camp in Covington, Ga. A stop for gas would separate the charter bus from the van. Brad Smith, the youth pastor at First Baptist Church of New Port Richey, watched over the students on the bus. They planned to meet again at the camp.
Three hours into the drive, as the bus neared the state line, Smith's phone rang. It was one of the students from the van. Through her shock, the girl managed to articulate there had been a crash. Most of them were okay, but she didn't know about the driver or one of the other youth leaders. They were on the side of the interstate somewhere near Lake City.
The next call, from the husband of a woman in the van, confirmed the news: two youth leaders were dead.
Smith hung up and redirected the bus south. He went first to Lake City Medical Center, where four of his students were in neck braces, strapped to stretchers. Three others had been flown to Gainesville with more serious injuries.
Across from the hospital in Lake City, the Beulah Baptist Association took in the rest of the youth group. Smith gathered them all in a room, a tiny congregation of young teens in various states of shock and disbelief, and explained what happened.
"There is no training for it, no seminary class or manual that says 'this is what you do,' " he said one week after the accident. "You're just trying to make it from one second to the next."
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Florida Highway Patrol reports state the van was in the northbound lane when its left rear tire blew. It began flipping and several people were ejected. Driver Jeff Novak, 52, and Michalanne Salliotte, 44, both of New Port Richey, were pronounced dead at the scene.
In the tragic times, the times fraught with confusion, when the veil of security is torn from children, who leads — and how?
Brad Smith is 34. He has been a student pastor at First Baptist Church of New Port Richey for nine years. Before, he worked at youth camps in New York's Adirondacks and in Hudson. His job is to teach young teens how to have a relationship with God.
Since the accident, he has clung to a symbol to help cope in the aftermath of the crash. A sticker. Several members of the clergy have it on their car. Clear and oval, it bears a cross in the middle and the name of the church. They were passed around a few years ago. One ended up on the rear window of the van Novak was driving.
It was found in the wreckage: a piece of a rear window, shattered into hundreds of bits, all held together by the sticker.
For Smith, it shows everything a church should do. The glass is shattered, like First Baptist has been since the crash. The sticker is clear, "so you can't really see what holds it together," he said. "What holds us together is God's love." At the center of both is the cross.
That's been the focus of Smith's ministering since the crash. At youth group meetings and in phone conversations and when students come to his house to work through their grief, he wants them to know, "it's okay to not be okay. And we're going to all not be okay together."
Smith remembers Michalanne Salliotte as sweet and kind. She concerned herself with her family's place spiritually. Last summer, at Smith's request, she became a youth group leader and helped on a mission trip to Peru. She began to form bonds with the girls in the youth group. Last week was going to be her first winter youth camp.
Novak, a father of four, volunteered with the youth group for seven years. He focused on sharing the word of God with sixth-grade boys, who generally have arrived at a tough, awkward time in life. Most of Novak's family was involved with the congregation. If the doors of the church were open, Smith said, a Novak was sure to be there. Novak worked as a Pasco County road inspector during the day and had a commercial driver's license. He drove the van on most of the youth group's trips.
"It really doesn't matter what I do Monday through Friday," Smith remembers Novak telling him in the weeks before the crash, "because what's important is when I get to teach the word of God to these young guys and girls."
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Smith got a call Thursday night from Novak's daughter, a freshman in college, looking to him for guidance.
"Why did my dad have to die?" she asked.
"I don't know," Smith said.
What he could offer is this: God is sovereign. He has a plan for everyone, including a set number of days for people's lives.
Friday, Feb. 21 was the final day for Novak and Salliotte. We may never know why they died, Smith said. It is not man's job to know the reason for things like this.
That's where faith comes in.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Alex Orlando at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.