Five children, who were on their way to Disney World, and two truck drivers died in a fiery pileup involving two 18-wheelers and a van carrying the kids when the vehicles collided on Interstate75.
The accident happened outside Gainesville in clear weather on a straight, flat stretch of Interstate 75, a busy highway that connects Florida to the rest of the South.
The National Transportation Safety Board would normally send a team to help with the investigation, but cannot because of the federal government shutdown.
Two northbound vehicles — a tractor-trailer and a car — crashed into one another and then broke through a metal guardrail, striking another semitrailer and the southbound van carrying children from a Pentecostal church in Marksville, Louisiana, to Disney World.
Vinnie DeVita said he was driving south and narrowly escaped the crash, but saw it in his rearview mirror.
“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.”
Diesel fuel leaked as a result of the collision, and there was an eruption that created a giant fireball, acording to the Florida Highway Patrol. At least eight other people involved in the pileups were injured, some seriously.
“It is a heartbreaking event,” said Lt. Patrick Riordan, of the Florida Highway Patrol.
The children ranged in age from 8 to 14 were members of the Avoyelles House of Mercy.
Walt Disney World officials expressed sympathies to the families of the seven victims headed to the park. Spokesperson Jacquee Wahler said Friday, “There are no words to convey the sorrow we feel for those involved.”
Riordan said preliminary information indicates that a tractor trailer and a car traveling northbound on I-75 collided with each other and went through a guardrail, entering the southbound lanes.
Those two vehicles then struck a large passenger van and another semi-truck. A fifth vehicle also struck some of the occupants or debris in the roadway, Riordan said.
According to Riordan, a truck operated by Steve Holland, 59, of West Palm Beach, was heading north in the far-right lane then suddenly veered left and collided with a car driven by Robyn Rattray, 41, of Gainesville.
Both the vehicles spun out of control through the center divider, where Holland’s truck plowed into a church van, driven by Amy Joffiron, 49, causing it to flip several times and eject some of the nine children on board. It is not known if the children were wearing seatbelts.
Holland’s 18-wheeler then crashed into another truck driven by Douglas Bolkema, 49, of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Bolkema was traveling south.
Both trucks and Rattray’s car caught fire, and a fifth vehicle hit at least one of the passengers ejected from the van.
Court records show Holland received numerous tickets between 2000 and 2014 in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Virginia for violations such as speeding, driving an unsafe vehicle, driving an overloaded vehicle and not carrying proof of insurance.
Bolkema received a ticket in 1997 for following too closely.
Rattray and Joffiron suffered serious injuries, as did the four surviving children, ages 9 to 14. They remain hospitalized, as did Karen Descant, the wife of the church’s pastor Eric Descant.
As for the extent of injuries, Superintendent of the Louisiana District of the United Pentecostal Church Kevin Cox, stated that Descant received several broken bones and multiple bruises.
A pregnant female passenger was in stable condition as of Friday evening. The church initially reported that the pregnant victim had given birth, then later corrected this statement.
The four surviving children were injured, but Cox says they are expected to recover.
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