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Elderly Burke County woman dies after crash while driving wrong way on I-40

An elderly Burke County woman involved in a head-on crash while driving the wrong way on Interstate 40 early Thursday has died, authorities said.

Ruth Johnson Whisnant, 81, was driving the wrong way on I-40 east, near exit 103, around 3:40 a.m. when she collided with a vehicle driven by Larry Freeman, 47, of Marion, according to First Sgt. K.B. Joines with the N.C. Highway Patrol.

Joines said Freeman was taken to Grace Hospital in Morganton with non-life threatening injuries.

Extremely foggy conditions might have been a factor in the crash, Joines said.

Whisnant, who lived about 31/3 miles from the interstate, was active in Burkemont Baptist Church where she had been a member for 68 years, according to Giovonnia Hennessee, office manager and secretary to the senior pastor.

“She was a sweet, feisty little woman,” Hennessee said. “Very petite. She was at church last Sunday.”

Hennessee said her daughter, Missy Hennessee, registers patients at the Grace Hospital emergency room where Whisnant was taken early Thursday.

Looking through Whisnant’s pocketbook for identification, Giovonnia Hennessee said her daughter recognized the name of a church member she’d known all her life.

“She went in asked Ruth – she was in her pajamas with no makeup – ‘what were you doing out at 3:30 a.m.?’ ” Hennessee said. “Ruth said ‘I don’t know.’ Then Missy asked: ‘Do you know who I am?’ and the answer was ‘No.’ When she said it was Missy, Ruth said ‘I’ve heard of you.’ ”

Hennessee said that was the last meaningful conservation the two women had.

She recalled that Whisnant enjoyed handing out church bulletins on Sunday mornings.

“She still did that,” Hennessee said. “She loved to see everybody and greet them. That’s been her job the last few years.”

Burkemont Baptist got a lot of phone calls about the crash and “some were shock, I think,” Hennessee said. “The first question was: what was she doing out that time of morning? But only she and the good Lord know that now.”

Funeral arrangements are incomplete.

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