Tractor-Trailer Careens Into Payson Church

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(Publisher's note: As part of a local job shadowing program, Hannah Etter, a Payson Center for Success intern, co-authored this story with Roundup reporter Max Foster.)

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Witnesses said the 17-year-old driver of this 1990 Chevy Lumina pulled in front of a semi-truck driver, causing the truck to veer off the highway and smash into the side of a church Tuesday.

Georgene Neel, 72, was certain Mount Cross Lutheran Church on Highway 260 was being rocked by a natural disaster when she felt the building rumble and shake.

"I was practicing on the church organ and at first I thought it was an earthquake," Neel said. "I'm from Simi Valley (California) and I know what earthquakes feel like."

Neel didn't realize there had been a collision until she came out the back door and saw a truck smashed into the building.

"That was the strangest thing I've ever seen," she said."A huge truck stuck inside a church."

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After striking a car that pulled out in front of him, the driver of this truck careened off westbound Highway 260 and slammed into Mount Cross Lutheran Church just yards away from a woman inside playing the organ.

Less than 100 feet away, in the Lomona retreat building, a line of voters were casting their ballots.

According to Payson Police Officer Chris Harold, a white 1990 Chevy Lumina driven by a 17-year-old girl turned in front of the truck, causing a collision that resulted in the truck careening more than 405 feet off the highway toward the church.

After jumping the curb, the truck struck a parked van and downed a large juniper tree, which fell on the van. The truck then crashed into the church, sending the cab of the truck into the hallway and part of the sanctuary.

"I don't remember everything," Clark Baker, the truck driver, said. "This car pulled out in front of me -- that's the last thing I remember. I swerved. I can't believe I went into a church."

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Payson Building Official Ray LaHaye was asked to inspect the structural integrity of the church.

Baker, 61, was taken to Payson Regional Medical Center and was transferred to a Valley hospital in serious condition. He was kept overnight for observation, and released with a small fracture in one vertebrae.

Baker said he believed there was a higher power guiding him through the accident.

"I praise God for his help in guiding me around this girl, for the protection of myself and everybody who was around me," Baker said.

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The truck struck a parked van and downed a large juniper tree, which fell on the van.

The 17-year-old driver of the Lumina received minor injuries, but refused medical treatment.

A parent of the teenager took the girl to a local doctor for examination, Harold said.

During the investigation of the accident, Payson Building Official Ray LaHaye was asked to inspect the structural integrity of the church.

"I was surprised, to say the least." LaHaye said. "It hit in an area where a lot of the structural support was in the chapel."

LaHaye said he believed the cab of the truck was supporting the structure, and if removed, could cause that portion of the building to collapse. He recommended that a structural engineer inspect the building's integrity. Meanwhile the truck remained lodged in the church until engineers could stabilize the structure.

According to PPD Lt. Don Engler, citations are pending.

Mount Cross Church services this Sunday, and until the building is repaired, will be held in the Lomona retreat facility just south of the main building located at 601 E. Highway 260.

For more information, call the church at (928) 474-2552.

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