Horror on the highway: How a dream Masters outing turned into a nightmare

April 6, 2018

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Kip Plowman, 53-year-old native son of Augusta and now a prominent Atlanta CPA, spends 51 weeks looking forward to the Masters. A managing partner at Cherry Bekaert, a large, old-line accounting agency, Plowman enjoys the tournament and relishes the opportunity to bring select colleagues and the firm’s best clients — and most promising prospective clients — to the tournament.  

On Wednesday, Plowman was the glorified tour guide for about 18 men and women, up and out early for the final practice round and the Par-3 Contest. Atlanta to Augusta and back in a luxury bus. For Plowman, the host and organizer, his day started before 6 and concluded about 16 hours later. A long day, yes, but a worthwhile one, too.  

On Thursday, he was ready to do it again, with a different group. He put on one of his new shirts with the Augusta National logo on it. The Georgia grad’s first call that morning was from the bus driver. Little mix-up on the pickup, running a little late. Kind of weird, Plowman thought, but no big deal. The driver picked him up at his home in the suburban Atlanta. Around 6:30, the day’s group — 18, as per usual — boarded the bus at the front door of the Loews hotel in Atlanta. They were on their way. Plowman could feel the excitement. “It’s a day of relationship-building,” he said in an interview Thursday. “We’re creating camaraderie.” It’s the kind of business entertaining that’s been done forever. When it’s done well, the word marketing never crosses your mind. It’s a holiday.[image:14111101]

The bus seating was plush and U-shaped and Plowman stood beside the driver, a heavyset man with thick white hair in his early 60s named Steve, telling stories of his many experiences at Augusta National. He spoke of his rounds at Augusta National with the tournament’s longtime starter, the late Phil Harison Sr., who himself had logged many rounds with Bobby Jones, the club’s founder. He was getting them in the mood.  

But Plowman was distracted. The driver was driving over the 70-mile-per-hour I-20 speed limit, frequently changing lanes, drifting into the shoulder at one point. “It was like the bus was wobbling,” Plowman said. One of his colleagues, a woman in her 30s, actually needed a motion sickness bag. That is, a re-purposed small trash bag. Plowman adjusted the dashboard air vents himself, in the hope that the driver would keep two hands on the wheel, even though he was often driving one-handed. A couple of people said that for the return trip they would take an Uber. They weren’t joking.  

At around 8:50, Plowman said, when the bus was less than 20 miles from Augusta, the driver drifted from the fast lane to the slow lane and into the shoulder, jerked the wheel to the left to get the bus back on paved highway and in doing so lost control of the bus. It flipped on its left side and slide maybe 100 yards down the interstate and into the grassy slope of the median. By the time the bus stopped, it had reversed its direction, so that it now faced the oncoming traffic. “Everybody was thrown,” Plowman said. “Smoke was filling the bus. The engine was revving. Windows were blown out. The hatch exit, two [feet] by two, on the ceiling? That’s now on the side of the bus. The bus door was now facing the ground. You’re hearing sentences like, ‘I’m all right but my arm hurts.’ Nobody was panicking.”

Plowman tried to release a red lever to open the hatch window, but it wouldn’t budge. He got out through a missing window and moved the hatch lid from the outside. One by one, sometimes with an adrenaline rush masking the pain of significant injuries, maybe half the passengers exited via a hatch.

Within minutes, Plowman heard the distinct loud whir of an incoming helicopter, and then a second one, plus the wailing sirens from six ambulances and Georgia State Patrol vehicles. Plowman, his right hand bleeding profusely, got out his passenger list for the emergency workers, with all the passenger names and phone numbers. He started walking along the interstate, collecting scattered cellphones and laptops. He texted his wife to tell her about the accident and to assure her that he was OK. He saw the bus driver, Steven Hoppenbrouwer, 61, placed in handcuffs. Plowman noted, without rancor, that the driver was apparently uninjured. “He was responsible, but he’s still a person,” he said.  

Plowman knows the Augusta medical community intimately. His father is Dr. Kent Plowman, a well-known Augusta internist who spent years at Doctors Hospital on Wheeler Road, where Plowman and eight others were treated for a range of injuries, including abrasions and various broken bones. The others were brought to Augusta University Medical Center.  

Golf is part of the culture almost everywhere you go in Augusta, and on one wall of Doctors Hospital there are watercolor prints of the three holes at Augusta National. The hospital CEO has a photo of Byron Nelson (winner at Augusta in 1937 and ’42) on one wall and a Vokey wedge leaning against another. The TV in a surgical waiting room was tuned to the Masters and a leftover Augusta Chronicle in the emergency-room waiting area had its special Masters section on top. Plowman gave two passes to Berckmans Place, a limited-access dining and entertaining oasis at Augusta National, to one of the emergency-room doctors. As Plowman’s guests and colleagues awaited the treatment, you can guess what they talked about. The tournament being played down the road. Plowman was told that one or two of his guests got released and made it to the tournament in bloodstained shirts.[image:14111100]

As of noon on Friday, Plowman said three from his group were still in Doctors Hospital and five were in Augusta University Medical Center. He could not discuss the precise nature of the injuries but did say that “none were critical, all were stable.” But it will be a long road back to complete mobility for some of the patients. The bus driver was charged with DUI — Plowman suspects the underlying issue was drug use, not alcohol — and was being held in the Columbia County Jail in Appling.  

“In a few months, we’re going to get the group back together and have another trip,” Plowman noted with notable good cheer. Same group, he said. Different bus. Different driver.

Next year, he hopes, they’ll get their day at Augusta.