Seven people, including five children, have died in a fiery multi-vehicle collision near Gainesville in Florida.
Joel Cloud and Jeremiah Warren, both 14; Cara Descant, 13; Briena Descant, 10; and Cierra Bordelan, nine, were travelling to Disney World with their church group when they were caught up in a collision involving two 18-wheelers. The tragedy happened on Interstate 75 close to the city of Alachua, some 130 miles north of Orlando.
According to the highway patrol, a truck being driven by 59-year-old Steve Holland from West Palm Beach was travelling north in the far-right lane when it suddenly veered left, colliding with a car driven by Robyn Rattray, 41, from Gainesville.
Both the truck and car spun out of control and through the centre divider, where Holland’s truck ploughed into the southbound church van, driven by Amy Joffiron, 49, causing the vehicle to flip several times and eject some of the nine children on board.
The victims died after diesel was spilt across the road during the collision, triggering a massive blaze. Holland and Douglas Bolkema, 49, from Albuquerque, New Mexico were also killed.
The four surviving children, who were also ages 9 to 14, remain hospitalised.
“It’s a heartbreaking event,” Highway Patrol Lt. Patrick Riordan told reporters near the crash scene in Alachua County, Florida.
Eyewitness Vinnie DeVita said he narrowly escaped the crash but saw the saw the tragedy in the rearview mirror.
“If I had stepped on the brake when I heard the noise, undoubtedly, I would have been in that accident,” he told Orlando television station WKMG.
“And then within probably 15 to 20 seconds of it all, it exploded. I mean, just a ball of flames.”
Authorities said at least eight people were taken to hospital with injuries including a pregnant woman and her unborn child who was now in a stable condition.
Although officials did not identify the Pentecostal church involved, Maxine Doughty, a member of the Avoyelles House of Mercy told The Gainesville Sun that her church was devastated.
“It’s unbelievable. Everybody is in shock. We lost five of our children,” she said. “We had our Last Supper Sunday, and the pastor said to live our lives like each day is the last day.”
The crash is the worst accident on that highway since January 2012, when 11 people died in a chain-reaction crash attributed to heavy fog and smoke on the road. That fatal collision prompted officials to install cameras, sensors and large electronic signs.
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