KIT CARSON, Colo. - A van driven by a sheriff's deputy who ran a group home for adopted and foster children collided with an empty cattle trailer on Thursday in a highway construction zone, killing him and five children and injuring seven other children.
Howard Mitchell, 57, was taking 12 of the children from the home in Kit Carson to Eads at the time of the crash around 7:30 a.m., troopers said. The school district in Eads, about 15 miles away, said on its website that the Mitchell family had close ties to the community of about 600 people.
The children who died ranged in age from 4 to 17 and lived in the home for adopted and foster children, said Kiowa County Sheriff's office spokesman Chris Sorensen. Seven other children in the van were hospitalized. The truck driver, of Cheyenne, Wyo., was treated at a hospital and released.
A photo provided by the State Patrol showed the front of the van crumpled into the rear of a large livestock trailer. There was about 26 feet of skid marks on the patch of U.S. 287 leading to the collision, Trooper T.A. Ortiz said.
The accident happened on a stretch of highway south of Kit Carson that has been under repair for the past month. One lane was closed, and the collision occurred at the back of a line of traffic about 1,000 feet long, said Stacey Stegman, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Sorensen said the normal speed limit on the highway is 65 miles per hour, but speeds were reduced because of the construction zone. Meteorologists said weather conditions in the area at the time were clear, no wind and temperatures in the low 30s.
In Kit Carson, where Mitchell ran the Mitchell House Children's Home, neighbors said they were devastated.
The family are "good people with good hearts," said Annette Weber, manager of the Trading Post restaurant next door to the group home.
Mitchell, a Cheyenne County sheriff's deputy, was a quiet man who spoke little but was respected by the children in his care, Weber said. "He just had a way with kids," she said.
Some of the children from the home worked at the restaurant, she added. "They always came to work, and they always did a good job and they were always more than happy to help us," Weber said.
Kay Piskorski, mother of the Trading Post's owner, said some of the children would come to the restaurant to buy pie for Mitchell and his wife.
"Good kids, all of them," she said. "Things aren't going to be the same. We're going to miss them. It's unbelievable."
Sorensen identified the children who died as Austyn Ackinson, 11; Tony Mitchell; Tayla Mitchell, 10; Andy Dawson, 13, and Jeremy Franks, 17. Weber said Mitchell had adopted Tony and Tayla. Tony Mitchell was in the fourth grade, Superintendent Glenn Smith said.
Smith described Tony and Tayla as "absolutely full of energy," and Andy was a dynamic kid who loved to play sports. Jeremy was ornery but respectful. In September, after a football team member lost his mother, Jeremy came up with the idea to make a card from the community, Smith said.
The ages of the hospitalized children were 3, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 and 17, officials said. The 14-year-old, who suffered minor injuries, was the only one in the van wearing a seat belt, although the 3-year-old was properly restrained in a child seat, troopers said.
Howard Mitchell and his wife were in the process of adopting 17-year-old T.J. Mitchell, Smith said.
Kit Carson is about 130 miles southeast of Denver. U.S. 287, a mostly two-lane highway, cuts across the sparsely populated eastern plains of Colorado and is popular with truckers on north-south trips through the state.
In Cheyenne Wells, people left flowers and photos at a makeshift memorial near the fire station.