GAINESVILLE, Fl. (AP) – The Florida Highway Patrol says five children from Louisiana and two tractor-trailer truck drivers died in a fiery crash on a Florida interstate.
During a news conference on Friday morning, Lt. Patrick Riordan said the church passenger van carrying the children was from the Avoyelles Parish in Louisiana. The crash happened at 3:40 p.m. Thursday just south of Gainesville in North Florida.
Spectrum News 13 reported Friday that the children were in a church van heading to Disney World. A representative of the Avoyelles House of Mercy told The Town Talk that its members were involved, but had no other information.
Riordan says a tractor-trailer and a passenger vehicle traveling north, collided and went through the guardrail into the southbound lanes. They struck the passenger van and another tractor-trailer. When the trucks collided they caught fire and the flames were fueled by about 50 gallons of diesel fuel.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, Riordan called the crash a “heartbreaking event.”
Joel Cloud and Jeremiah Warren, both 14, Cierra Bordelan, 9, Cara Descant, 13, Brieana Descant, 10, were the five children killed in the crash.
Steven Holland, 59, of West Palm Beach, Florida, and Douglas Bolkema, 49, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, were identified as the two semitruck drivers killed.
Authorities said they were treating the crash as a homicide investigation, but didn’t say why. The fire was so intense that authorities said it damaged parts of the road.
Vinnie DeVita said he was driving south at the time and narrowly escaped the crash. He said it saw it happen in the rearview mirror, immediately behind him, according to a report by WKMG.
“If I had stepped on the brake when I heard the noise, undoubtedly, I would have been in that accident,” DeVita said. “And then within probably 15 to 20 seconds of it all, it exploded. I mean, just a ball of flames.”
The aftermath closed part of the highway in both directions, causing massive delays along the busy north-south corridor. Authorities opened the northbound lanes around 8 p.m. but all but one southbound lane remained closed Friday morning. Debris, including personal property and vehicle parts, was scattered across the road, the Florida Highway Patrol said. A helicopter helped search for any victims who may have been in nearby woods.
Nicole Towarek was traveling northbound with her family when they came across the scene. She told the Gainesville Sun that black smoke billowed, people were laid out near vehicles, there were long skid marks across the roadway and emergency workers were converging on the area.
“We kept seeing these little explosions and fire,” she said. “The heat, it was insane.”
It was the worst accident on I-75 in Alachua County since January 2012, when 11 people died in a chain-reaction crash attributed to heavy fog and smoke on the roadway, which crosses Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. Officials were criticized then for not closing the road due to worsening conditions, and later installed cameras, sensors and large electronic signs to help prevent similar crashes.
A Louisiana school district is mourning the deaths of the five children.
“We are deeply saddened by the news of the terrible accident that a church youth group from our parish was involved in,” an official with the Avoyelles Parish School Board said in a statement on Facebook.
School board officials said three of the children went to schools in the district and the other two had close ties to the system.