5 children heading to Disney killed in fiery Florida crash

  • Flames engulf vehicles after a fiery crash along Interstate 75, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, about a mile south of Alachua, near Gainesville, Fla. Highway officials say at least six people have died after a crash and diesel fuel spill sparked a massive fire along the Florida interstate. (WGFL-Gainesville via AP)

    Flames engulf vehicles after a fiery crash along Interstate 75, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, about a mile south of Alachua, near Gainesville, Fla. Highway officials say at least six people have died after a crash and diesel fuel spill sparked a massive fire along the Florida interstate. (WGFL-Gainesville via AP) Associated Press

  • A worker with the environmental clean up company AAG Environmental works to remove fuel spilled at the scene of Thursday's multi-vehicle accident that caused multiple fatalities on Interstate 75 between Alachua and Gainesville, Fla., on Friday, Jan. 4, 2019. (Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun via AP)

    A worker with the environmental clean up company AAG Environmental works to remove fuel spilled at the scene of Thursday's multi-vehicle accident that caused multiple fatalities on Interstate 75 between Alachua and Gainesville, Fla., on Friday, Jan. 4, 2019. (Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun via AP) Associated Press

  • Debris off the south bound side of Interstate 75 remains at the scene of Thursday's multi-vehicle accident that caused multiple fatalities between Alachua and Gainesville, Fla., on Friday, Jan. 4, 2019. (Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun via AP)

    Debris off the south bound side of Interstate 75 remains at the scene of Thursday's multi-vehicle accident that caused multiple fatalities between Alachua and Gainesville, Fla., on Friday, Jan. 4, 2019. (Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun via AP) Associated Press

  • Debris off the south bound side of Interstate 75 remains at the scene of Thursday's multi-vehicle accident that caused multiple fatalities between Alachua and Gainesville, Fla., on Friday, Jan. 4, 2019. (Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun via AP)

    Debris off the south bound side of Interstate 75 remains at the scene of Thursday's multi-vehicle accident that caused multiple fatalities between Alachua and Gainesville, Fla., on Friday, Jan. 4, 2019. (Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun via AP) Associated Press

  • Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Pat Riordan, left, along with Troy Roberts, the spokesperson for the Florida Department of Transportation,  updates members the media during a press conference, Friday, Jan. 4, 2019, in Gainesville, Fla., about a fiery highway crash the day before that killed at least seven people. (Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun via AP)

    Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Pat Riordan, left, along with Troy Roberts, the spokesperson for the Florida Department of Transportation, updates members the media during a press conference, Friday, Jan. 4, 2019, in Gainesville, Fla., about a fiery highway crash the day before that killed at least seven people. (Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun via AP) Associated Press

  • Interstate 75 is shut down both directions after a wreck with multiple fatalities on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. Seven people died and at least eight more were injured, some of them critically, in the multi-vehicle crash. (Lauren Bacho/The Gainesville Sun via AP)

    Interstate 75 is shut down both directions after a wreck with multiple fatalities on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. Seven people died and at least eight more were injured, some of them critically, in the multi-vehicle crash. (Lauren Bacho/The Gainesville Sun via AP) Associated Press

  • CORRECTS SOURCE TO THE GAINESVILLE SUN The sun sets over burned semi-trucks and vehicle debris after a wreck with multiple fatalities on Interstate 75, south of Alachua, near Gainesville, Fa., Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. Two big rigs and two passenger vehicles collided and spilled diesel fuel across the Florida highway Thursday, sparking a massive fire that killed several people, authorities said. (Lauren Bacho/The Gainesville Sun via AP)

    CORRECTS SOURCE TO THE GAINESVILLE SUN The sun sets over burned semi-trucks and vehicle debris after a wreck with multiple fatalities on Interstate 75, south of Alachua, near Gainesville, Fa., Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. Two big rigs and two passenger vehicles collided and spilled diesel fuel across the Florida highway Thursday, sparking a massive fire that killed several people, authorities said. (Lauren Bacho/The Gainesville Sun via AP) Associated Press

  • CORRECTS SOURCE TO THE GAINESVILLE SUN A worker looks at a charred semi-truck after a wreck with multiple fatalities on Interstate 75, south of Alachua, near Gainesville, Fa., Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. Two big rigs and two passenger vehicles collided and spilled diesel fuel across the Florida highway Thursday, sparking a massive fire that killed several people, authorities said. (Lauren Bacho/The Gainesville Sun via AP)

    CORRECTS SOURCE TO THE GAINESVILLE SUN A worker looks at a charred semi-truck after a wreck with multiple fatalities on Interstate 75, south of Alachua, near Gainesville, Fa., Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. Two big rigs and two passenger vehicles collided and spilled diesel fuel across the Florida highway Thursday, sparking a massive fire that killed several people, authorities said. (Lauren Bacho/The Gainesville Sun via AP) Associated Press

  • CORRECTS SOURCE TO THE GAINESVILLE SUN Police survey the scene after a wreck with multiple fatalities on Interstate 75, south of Alachua, near Gainesville, Fa., Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. Two big rigs and two passenger vehicles collided and spilled diesel fuel across the Florida highway Thursday, sparking a massive fire that killed several people, authorities said. (Lauren Bacho/The Gainesville Sun via AP)

    CORRECTS SOURCE TO THE GAINESVILLE SUN Police survey the scene after a wreck with multiple fatalities on Interstate 75, south of Alachua, near Gainesville, Fa., Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. Two big rigs and two passenger vehicles collided and spilled diesel fuel across the Florida highway Thursday, sparking a massive fire that killed several people, authorities said. (Lauren Bacho/The Gainesville Sun via AP) Associated Press

  • This image taken from a Florida 511 traffic camera and provided by the Alachua County Fire Rescue, shows a fiery crash along Interstate 75, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, about a mile south of Alachua, near Gainesville, Fla. Highway officials say six people have died after a crash and diesel fuel spill sparked a massive fire on a Florida interstate. (Alachua County Fire Rescue/Florida 511 via AP)

    This image taken from a Florida 511 traffic camera and provided by the Alachua County Fire Rescue, shows a fiery crash along Interstate 75, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, about a mile south of Alachua, near Gainesville, Fla. Highway officials say six people have died after a crash and diesel fuel spill sparked a massive fire on a Florida interstate. (Alachua County Fire Rescue/Florida 511 via AP) Associated Press

 
 
Updated 1/4/2019 8:02 PM

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- A church van packed with children was headed to Walt Disney World when it got caught in a fiery pileup involving two 18-wheelers. Seven people, including five of the youngsters, died in the crash.

On Friday, investigators tried to determine what triggered the accident, which 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.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

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 southbound van carrying the children. Diesel fuel leaked, and the mass erupted into a fireball, the Florida Highway Patrol said.

A fifth car, unable to avoid the chaos, sped through and hit people who were thrown from the van, 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.

"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 on Friday that her church was stunned. The children ranged in age from 9 to 14.

"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."

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Church officials did not immediately respond to phone calls.

A pregnant woman who was among those injured delivered a baby, according to a message posted on the Facebook page of the Lighthouse United Pentecostal Church Omaha and signed by Kevin V. Cox, the Pentecostal church's Louisiana district superintendent.

Cox said church pastor Eric Descant's 50-year-old wife, Karen, was critically injured and his granddaughter was among the children killed.

The highway patrol says a truck driven by Steve Holland, 59, of West Palm Beach, was traveling north in the far-right lane when his truck suddenly veered left and collided with a car driven by Robyn Rattray, 41, of Gainesville.

Both the truck and car went out of control and through the center divider, where Holland's truck plowed into the church van, driven by Amy Joffiron, 49, causing it to flip several times and eject some of the nine children on board. The highway patrol said it is unknown if any were wearing seatbelts.

Holland's truck then struck a truck driven by Douglas Bolkema, 49, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, who was also traveling south. Both trucks and Rattray's car caught fire, and a fifth vehicle hit at least one of the ejected van passengers.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Rattray and Joffiron suffered serious injuries, as did the four surviving children, who were also ages 9 to 14. They remain hospitalized, as did Karen Descant.

Authorities identified the dead children as Joel Cloud and Jeremiah Warren, both 14; Cara Descant, 13; Briena Descant, 10; and Cierra Bordelan, 9. The relationship between the Descant girls and the pastor was not immediately available.

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.

Vinnie DeVita said he was driving south and narrowly escaped the crash. He saw it in the rearview mirror, immediately behind him, according to a report by Orlando television station 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 highway is a busy transportation corridor. Its lanes fill daily with semis that barrel among other vehicles filled with tourists heading to and from Orlando, Tampa and South Florida.

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 that will not impede the highway patrol's efforts, which could take months.

Florida Department of Transportation spokesman 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 severe.

"The guardrails are there to stop as much as they can, but there are some things they cannot," Roberts said.

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 for not closing the road because of the conditions. They later installed cameras, sensors and large electronic signs to help prevent similar crashes.

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Frisaro contributed from Miami. Kelli Kennedy in Fort Lauderdale also contributed to this report.

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