FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) - A church van packed with children was headed to Walt Disney World when it got caught in a fiery pileup involving two 18-wheelers. Seven people, including five of the youngsters, died in the crash. A dog also died in the crash.
The Florida Highway Patrol said the call came in at 3:40 Thursday afternoon. According to investigators, the chaos all started when a semi truck, traveling northbound on Interstate 75 in Alachua County, veered into the left lane, hitting a car. The impact sent them both vehicles barreling through the guardrail, across the median and into southbound traffic.
The northbound semi hit the driver’s side of a southbound church van, causing it to roll several times, ejecting some of its passengers. FHP said the northbound semi then crashed into the southbound semi, setting them on fire, along with the northbound car that it originally hit.
Five children inside the van, owned by Avoyelles House of Mercy, a Pentecostal church in Marksville, Louisiana, were killed almost instantly. Troopers have identified them as Joel Cloud and Jeremiah Warren, both 14; Cara Descant, 13; Brieana Descant, 10; and Cierra Bordelan, 9. At least one of the passengers ejected from the church van was run over by a southbound pick-up truck, according to traffic homicide investigators.
Troopers said there were seven others in the church van who were seriously injured. One was a pregnant woman. Six passengers were transported in “serious condition” to UF Health Shand’s Hospital in Gainesville.
The congregation’s pastor was not on the trip. His wife, Karen, is listed in critical condition. The couple lost two of their granddaughters in the wreck.
The mother of one of the victims said that the children killed in the van were all sleeping when the crash happened. She said family members are taking comfort knowing that they slept through it and wouldn’t have known what happened.
Robyn Rattray, 41, of Gainesville, was traveling north in her Honda when troopers say she was struck by the semi. She’s was taken to Shands Hospital. Troopers said she was able to get out of her car on her own as it went up in flames. She was not able to get her dog out of the car. It died on scene.
Dr. Scott Brakenridge, from Shands, treated some of the victims.
“We received an alert from the EMS services to be prepared for a mass casualty event, to receive anywhere from between 10 to 15 casualties,” said Dr. Brakenridge, who’s a trauma surgeon at the hospital.
In all, Shands is treating the six victims for orthopedic, neurologic and internal injuries. Two of the patients there are women, including the pastor’s wife. There are four children being treated, between the ages of 9 and 14. Dr. Brakenridge says 50 to 100 doctors, nurses and staff members helped when they came into the hospital.
“Seeing all these patients at one time is obviously stressful, clearly for the patients but for the caregivers as well. But we prepare and practice so when an event like this happens, we're ready.”
While doctors treat the physical, one local pastor and his wife are there, treating the spiritual and emotional wounds.
“We've been able to visit everyone that's been affected and even for children they're handling it so very, very well. We believe somehow something good is going to come out of this, we can can't see that now but believe God is going to work all of that out,” said Pastor Jimmy Toney, of The Pentecostals of Gainesville.
“It's good when patients have families by their side and many of these patients have families at their side,” said Dr. Brakenridge.
The victims are expected to be at the hospital for days or weeks while they recover. One of the victims is pregnant, but she’s expected to be okay.
Pastor Toney’s church has set up a fund to raise money for the victims. You can donate here.
Troopers have identified the driver of the northbound semi as Steve Holland, 59, of West Palm Beach. Douglas Bolkema, 49, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, has been identified as the driver of the southbound rig.
Right now, traffic homicide investigators are working to figure out why Holland veered out of his northbound lane into the Honda next to him, starting the chain reaction of horrific events.
Florida Department of Transportation said the fiery wreck did cause damage to the interstate. Two lanes are expected to be shut down overnight Friday near mile marker 394 on I-75 as FDOT works to repair the road.