FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — 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 8 to 14.
Florida Department of Transportation spokesman Troy Roberts said the agency is investigating whether a 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.
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.