Five children heading to Disney World in a church van from Louisiana died along with two truck drivers in a fiery crash, authorities said Friday. The van was traveling on Interstate 75 near Gainesville when it got caught in a pileup involving two 18-wheelers.
On Thursday, two vehicles traveling north — a tractor-trailer and a car — smashed into each other and then burst through a metal guardrail, slamming into another semitrailer and the van carrying the children. Diesel fuel leaked and the mass erupted into a fireball.
A fifth car, unable to avoid the chaos, sped through, possibly hitting victims ejected from the vehicles, the highway patrol said. Five of the children from a Pentecostal church in Marksville, Louisiana, and the two truck drivers died. At least eight others were injured, some seriously.
The children were identified as Cierra Bordelan, 9; Briena Descant, 10; Cara Descant, 13; Joel Cloud, 14; and Jeremiah Warren, 14. They were all from Marksville, Louisiana. The truck drivers were identified as Douglas Bolkema, 49, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Steve Holland, 59, of West Palm Beach.
"It is a heartbreaking event," Lt. Patrick Riordan said Friday. He did not identify the church involved, but a member of the Avoyelles House of Mercy told The Gainesville Sun her church was stunned.
"It's unbelievable. Everybody is in shock. We lost five of our children," church member Maxine Doughty said. "We had our Last Supper Sunday and the pastor said to live our lives like each day is the last day."
The National Transportation Safety Board would normally send a team to help with the investigation, but cannot because of the federal government shutdown. Riordan said Friday that will not impede the highway patrol's efforts, which could take months.
Florida Department of Transportation Troy Roberts said the agency is investigating whether the guardrail should have stopped the northbound crash from crossing the highway or whether the crash was too traumatic.
"The guardrails are there to stop as much as they can, but there are some things they cannot," Roberts said. "Unfortunately, in this case, they did not."
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 road. Officials were criticized then for not closing the road because of conditions and later installed cameras, sensors and large electronic signs to help prevent similar crashes.
Disney World spokesperson Jacquee Wahler expressed the theme park's sympathies to the victims' families.
"There are no words to convey the sorrow we feel for those involved," she said. "We extend heartfelt condolences to the families and loved ones impacted by this tragic accident."
The Pentecostals of Gainesville created a fundraiser to help cover travel and housing expenses for the families of victims heading to Florida. "Funds will be used to give direct support to the families of Avoyelles House of Mercy UPC and other families directly [affected] by this tragedy," the group's website said.