The death of Wilhemina (Willi) Paul has left the Ancaster Christian Reformed Church in rural Hamilton struggling to deal with its third tragic fatality in under a year.
Paul, 70, was killed alongside Margaret Vanderlaan, 72, and Johanna Dijkhoff, 80, as they were leaving a Sunday church service at the Sugar Creek Country Club in the community of Bradenton, Fla.
A 79-year-old woman driving an SUV backed into a group of seven people outside the church at high speed. Four others, including a 67-year-old Ontario woman, were seriously injured in what bystanders called a traumatic chain of events.
Paul's husband John was standing just steps away from her when she was run over, said Pastor Rita Klein-Geltink of the Ancaster Reformed Church. She spoke to him by phone on Sunday evening.
“He had to be in shock, he was very pragmatic,” Klein-Geltink said. “He’s having a difficult time. He needs to come home.”
The Pauls had been part of the church for 15 years, and spent many of their winters in Florida, Klein-Geltink said. “Everyone I spoke to about them said Willi was a huge part of their hearts,” she said.
The members of the Ancaster Christian Reformed Church are no strangers to tragedy. Ancaster’s Tim Bosma was a member of the church before he disappeared from his home on a test drive in his truck with two strangers who responded to an online ad. His charred remains were later found and two people stand accused of his murder.
Then in September, 21-year-old Eric Alvin Kippers, who was also a member of the church, was killed in a car crash in rural Hamilton.
“This is the third extremely tragic death,” Klein-Geltink said. “To find a joy in Jesus right now is hard — but it’s all we have.”
'An awful scene'
Pastor Gerrit Koedoot delivered the service in Florida that took place mere minutes before the accident that killed Paul. He said the community is still reeling.
He recalled an SUV backing out of a parking spot, pulling forward and then needing more room to clear another parked vehicle. At that point the SUV began backing up again "at great speed," he said.
The vehicle ran straight through a group of pedestrians, over a curb, collided with some trees and finally came to a stop after splashing into a canal.
"They were just mowed down," he said. "It was just an awful scene. It was emotionally almost impossible to measure."
Vanderlaan and Paul, both good friends, had been spending the winter in Florida for years, as have most of the community's other residents.
'Many tears shed'
Members of their families rushed to Bradenton after news of the accident, he said. Vanderlaan's husband and children were believed to have headed back to Canada Tuesday for her funeral. Paul's family was expected to do the same later this week, he said. Her funeral is tentatively scheduled for Wednesday of next week.
Florida police have said the incident wasn't alcohol related, and no charges have been laid against the driver of the SUV, who has been identified as Doreen Landstra, of Palmetto, Fla.
Witnesses told the local paper Landstra apparently thought she had the car in drive — and not reverse — when she pressed the gas pedal. Neither she nor the passenger in her vehicle were injured. The investigation is ongoing.
News of Paul’s death struck the Ancaster Christian Reformed Church during a service on Sunday night. “There were many tears shed,” Klein-Geltink said. The congregation members are now preparing for the funeral — something they’ve gotten accustomed to in recent months.
“This is where we are as a church right now,” she said. “But all these little things are happening. I always hear about people dropping off meals, baking, going for coffee, and just kind words when they’re needed.”
“Still, it’s been really hard for people to wrap their heads and hearts around.”