AZLE — A small sport utility vehicle full of church members heading to a celebration burst into flames Sunday afternoon, killing three inside, after it collided with a minivan.
The fiery accident happened about four miles from the Azle church where the group was heading.
"I came up on it and saw it burning, but I did not know it was my members," Annette Hoffstead said, not recognizing the burned-out Kia Soul. "I did not know. I told my kids that someone had died in that car."
Hoffstead didn't realize it was her friends in that car until an hour later, when news reached Wesley Chapel in Azle. The congregation was near the end of celebrating the church's 142nd anniversary when members learned their friends had been in a serious accident not far away.
"The preacher had already preached, and he was finishing when we found out what happened," said Rev. Thurman Berry, Wesley's pastor. "Everybody was going to celebrate... and then something like this happens."
The accident happened just before 2 o'clock at the intersection of Jacksboro Highway and Hanger Cutoff Road in northwest Fort Worth.
A Honda Odyssey minivan collided with the Kia SUV. Investigators said they aren't sure which driver is at fault, now do they know why the Kia caught fire.
Witnesses rushed to free the three people trapped in the Kia’s back seat as it filled with smoke.
"There was a lot of people there helping," said Kristi Woods, who drove up to the scene with her boyfriend. She said people tried to use a toppled road sign and wrenches to free the victims, but they did not succeed.
"The windows would not bust, and the doors would not open," she said. "It was so unreal."
Within minutes, she said, flames consumed the SUV. Church members said Lilly Smith, Henry Sims, 80, and Walter King, 15, were all killed.
Walter's mother and aunt were in the front seat. They escaped, but were burned trying to save the others.
The group belonged to Stewart Chapel in Fort Worth. They had attended a service that morning in their home church before they all then headed to the anniversary celebration in Azle.
Stewart's pastor, Rev. John Barnett, had just seen all of them in the morning. He said Walter had been giving out hugs.
"Every time you see Walter, he would want a hug," Rev. Barnett said. "He was a greeter, so I know he will be a greeter in heaven."
Friends said King had developmental issues, yet the teenager competed in track and softball with the Special Olympics.
The other two victims were long-time church members and friends.
Smith played the piano at services. Sims — also known as "Big Hen" — had been a deeply faithful member for decades.
He celebrated his 80th birthday in January, yet he often helped with the electrical work at the church and sang in the choir.
"He was doing what he wanted to do," his daughter, Pamela Peyton, said. "He was on his way to sing; he loved to sing."
Members said the loss is a big blow to their small congregation. Many are now relying on their deep faith to help them grieve.
"God knows what he's doing," said Versie Pruitt, a friend of Sims. "All we have to do is accept what God is doing, and that he doesn’t make mistakes."