Authorities have confirmed that five children killed in a fiery wreck near Gainesville were traveling in a church van from Avoyelles Parish, La., to Walt Disney World on Thursday afternoon.
Two truck drivers also died in the wreck, according to Pat Riordan, a spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol. He spoke at a news conference on Friday morning, when he outlined preliminary details of the wreck on Interstate 75.
“One life is tragic,” Riordan said. “The loss of life — period — is tragic, and unfortunately we had seven people lose their lives.”
He said a tractor-trailer and a car were traveling north when they collided, swerving through a nearby guardrail and landing among southbound traffic. They struck another tractor-trailer and a passenger van, which were traveling south.
The trucks burst into flames upon impact, he said, noting that investigators had yet to identity the truckers’ origins.
“The damage from the fire was extensive, and I didn’t see the logos or the information about where the carrier was from,” Riordan said.
The children, he said, were between the ages of 8 and 9, while some were teenagers. Paramedics transported at least half a dozen other people to area hospitals for their injuries.
Members of Avoyelles House of Mercy spent several months raising money for the Disney trip, according to a report from Avoyelles Today.
“This is the worst thing that has ever happened to us. We have lost half of our children,” the report states, quoting a church volunteer.
Troopers struggled to notify the victims’ families on Friday morning. While officers prefer to contact families in person, Riordan said most of the victims hailed from Louisiana, complicating the process.
It seems 12 people were aboard the church van: three women and nine children. The church is one of thousands belonging to United Pentecostal Church International, and the organization released a statement through its Louisiana district.
In his prepared statement, District Superintendent Kevin Cox said the church is led by Eric Descant. The wreck reportedly killed his granddaughter.
The pastor’s wife, Karen, suffered seven broken ribs, a broken collarbone and various other injuries.
“The four children all have injuries, but the medical staff feel that all of them will heal and recover,” Cox wrote, referencing the survivors.
One of the women was pregnant, and she successfully delivered the baby on Thursday night, according to the update.
”The baby is going to be OK,” it states.
“Please pray for the families who lost precious children, the other accident victims, all involved in the rescue efforts, and the church family,” Cox continued “They will need our prayers in the coming weeks and months.”