Five people were killed and 25 injured when an aged bus carrying farmworkers collided with a tractor-trailer and both vehicles burst into flames Saturday at a highway intersection in the Florida Panhandle, authorities said.
The Blue Bird bus from Georgia was carrying roughly 34 adults and children when it ran a flashing red light and a stop sign before hitting the tractor trailer, then spun around and hit the semi again, authorities said.
“This is a very horrendous crash, I can tell you,” Wakulla County Sheriff Charlie Creel said, calling it one of the worst in several decades in law enforcement.
He told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that one of the bus passengers killed was a small child. The driver of the semi-truck, Gordon Sheets, 55 of Copiague, New York, also died, Creel said.
He said the bus, a retired school bus model built in 1979, hit just behind the driver’s door of the semi-truck on first impact and then spun around and hit it again as the vehicles went off the road and came to rest under a power line.
Deputies responded to a gruesome and chaotic scene as the front and the back of the bus was on fire when they arrived.
“Our deputies are heroes … our deputies got on the bus and started pulling people off, people that were not able to get off by themselves. They pulled out two deceased victims,” said Creel.
He said deputies continued to rescue victims until the bus was fully engulfed in flames and they were forced to stop.
“If these deputies had not done that, we would have had a lot more fatalities,” the sheriff said, adding they were eventually “driven back” by the flames that then fully engulfed the tractor-trailer.
Both vehicles were resting against a power pole with live wires so fire rescue officials had to wait for the power company to shut off the power before it was safe to spray the vehicles with water. Both vehicles eventually burned out, he said.
The Tallahassee Democrat reported the intersection was strewn with bloody medical gear, clothing, pillows and coolers packed with food littered the road. The accident happened on US-98, a highway that follows the Florida coast around the Gulf of Mexico.
No one on the bus spoke English and authorities brought in interpreters, Creel said. He said the bus had left Bainbridge in south Georgia not far from the Florida Panhandle area and was bound for Belle Glade, Florida.
He said the bus was headed south on a north-south state road when it collided with the tractor-trailer, which was westbound on U.S. 98 – a Florida coastal highway.
Florida Highway Patrol officials were also investigating the wreck and were in the processing of notifying victims’ family members.
The driver of the bus, 56-year-old Elie Dupiche of Belle Glade, was hospitalized in critical condition. A passenger in the semi-truck, 21-year-old Rafael Nieves of Sound Beach, New York, was not injured, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.