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Comfort bus tragedy survivor shares her story of survival, faith

Felicia DeFore Smith survived 1987 bus accident that claimed 10 lives

Courtesy: Felicia DeFore Smith
Courtesy: Felicia DeFore Smith

COMFORT, Texas – If not for the calendar, Monday would have been like any other day for Felicia DeFore Smith.

But Monday, July 17, 2017, was anything but another day: It was the 30th anniversary of a day that changed her life.   

While the campers of Pot O’ Gold Christian Camp slept not far from the banks of the quiet Guadalupe River, a storm formed 30 miles away that would turn the waterway into a death trap.

30 YEARS LATER: When the Guadalupe River turned deadly

On that fateful Friday morning in 1987, the final bus and van carrying the kids from Seagoville Baptist Church in Balch Springs, near Dallas, was traveling along Hermann Sons Road. Nearby the river was quickly rising and that is where DeFore Smith’s story picks up.

The teen had transferred to Balch Springs Christian Academy the year before. New to the school, she decided to attend camp with the friends she had made her sophomore year. And while the exact moments leading up the tragedy are vague, she said she remembers the buses in front of hers making it across the road, even though water was covering it. She said she was not paying much attention and that no one worried much.

Then her bus stalled, and behind it was a van.

Richard Koons, an associate pastor, was driving the bus. He told everyone to get off and for the guys to help the girls make it to dry land.

VIDEO: Paul Venema: 'It was a chilling experience,' veteran reporter details what it was like to cover the flood of 1987

“I also remember the seriousness of the situation (was) not dawning on me,” DeFore Smith said. She even told her best friend Stacey Smith, who was also 16 but unrelated, to leave her purse and that they would come back and get it.

DeFore Smith said when they got off the bus, the water was up to her knees. She said moments later another rush of water came and the water was up to her neck. When another wall of water hit, it was over their heads.

It was the last time Felicia would see Stacey alive.

DeFore Smith said she could recall grabbing a tree branch and holding on. She was in a cluster of trees with several other campers and Koons telling them to keep climbing it to get higher up.

“I am in shock, too,” she said, recalling the moment. “I didn’t know what to think.”

Through their own fear, though, there was still a valiant effort to save others.

"Guys pulled off jeans to make ropes to try to grab people floating down the river,” DeFore Smith said.

WATCH: What caused the fatal Guadalupe River flood in 1987?

While she waited to be rescued, the bus that she has been in floated by and lodged into a tree next to her. When the waters receded, searchers found the bus several hundred yards downstream.

The teen would spend the next four hours waiting to be plucked out of the tree.

Once rescued, she was checked out at the Comfort Community Hospital before going home with the family of Wesley Kennedy, another survivor, though he stayed behind.

Though unsure she would have been able to help, DeFore Smith said she wished she had stayed in Comfort.

Stacey Smith, her little sister, Tonya, and eight others died that day.

IMAGES: 1987 Flood waters over take church bus

“Every friend I made died,” DeFore Smith said.

A few weeks later when school started, DeFore Smith remained at Balch Springs and said it was a confusing time for everyone. Some survivors didn’t want to talk about the flood; teachers and classmates that weren’t there didn’t know what to say. “It was hard in so many ways,” she said.

A hardness that carried on with DeFore Smith for many years after the flood.

“Because I have grown up in the church, I knew that it was not the right response to be angry or to blame God. So those negative emotions that I had, I just buried,” she said.

She credits God for not giving up on her. She said over the years people who came into her life helped her work through what happened. As she tells it, God was telling her, “Hey, we need to deal with this. You need to process this.” 

“I finally got to a place where I said, ‘God, I am angry that this happened and my friends died. But I don’t want to feel that way and you need to help me,’” Smith said.

RELATED: Coverage of ‘87 Comfort flooding that killed 10

The help finally came one day while driving to work. DeFore Smith said while listening to the song "Champion" by the Christian recording artist Carman, a song she had heard many times before, she heard a higher power speak to her. “It was as if Jesus said, ‘Felicia, I love you so much I died for you, but you have to trust me,’” she said.

Since then, DeFore Smith said she not harbored any bitterness about that day.

“God has been wonderful,” she said. “(He) has really spoken to me.” 

DeFore Smith has returned to the scene twice. The first time was on the first anniversary, when a memorial was dedicated on the riverbanks. The second time was just two years ago.

“It was a flood of emotions. I don’t even know if I can begin to describe them all,” she said. “Definitely sorrow of what happened and the lives lost, but grateful I survived it.”

And no passage of time can change that feeling of gratefulness she still carries, even as she remembers the friends she lost.

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