ALACHUA, Fla. – Five children from Louisiana on a church trip to Walt Disney World were killed Thursday in a crash on Interstate 75 near Gainesville, according to officials from the Florida Highway Patrol.
The crash occurred at 3:40 p.m. near mile marker 394, about one 1 mile south of Alachua. Only one southbound lane is currently open on the road, but Florida Department of Transportation spokesman Troy Roberts said the agency hopes to have an additional lane open shortly.
In a press conference on Friday, FHP Lt. Pat Riordan said nine children were traveling through Florida on a trip with Pentecostal church Avoyelles House of Mercy in Marksville, Lousiana. Their ages have not been confirmed, but Riordan said the deceased ranged in age from 8 years old to teenagers.
“It’s a heartbreaking event,” Riordan said.
“There are no words to convey the sorrow we feel for those involved in yesterday’s tragedy," Walt Disney World Resort spokeswoman Jacquee Wahler said. "We extend heartfelt condolences to the families and loved ones impacted by this tragic accident.”
The superintendent of the Louisiana United Pentecostal Church, Kevin Cox, said in a Facebook post that three adult women were on the van along with the nine children. One of those women, Karen Descant, was the wife of Eric Descant, pastor of the Avoyelles House of Mercy, according to Cox.
"She is pretty banged up," Eric Descant is quoted as saying in the Facebook post.
In the same Facebook post, Cox said that the Descants' granddaughter was among those killed. He said the four other children are injured by are expected to recover while the other adult woman is not "as severely injured," but remains in the hospital.
Pentecostals of Gainesville set up a fundraiser to help cover travel, housing and other expenses for families coming to Florida while victims recover. Click here to donate on the church's website.
Riordan said a semitruck and vehicle traveling north collided and traveled through the road's guardrail, into the southbound lanes. The semitruck struck the children's passenger van and another semitruck, which were both traveling south, according to Riordan. He said the some of the van's occupants were ejected and both semitrucks caught on fire.
A fifth vehicle, a pickup truck that was traveling behind the semitruck and van in the southbound lanes, may have struck some of the people ejected from the van and debris, Riordan said.
The guardrail in the middle of the road did not stop the vehicles from traveling across. Roberts said FDOT investigators will be looking into the crash in an attempt to prevent future incidents.
"Any time there’s a crash on any of our roadways, we go back and look at the road itself to make sure it did not contribute to the crash,” he said.
In addition to the children, the two semitruck drivers also died. Riordan said six to eight people were taken to the hospital as a result of the crash.
Authorities are currently attempting to notify next of kin of the deaths. Riordan said since many of the victims' families are out-of-state, it may take longer than usual.
Gainesville pastor Jimmy Toney, whose church is part of the same organization as Avoyelles House of Mercy, is working to help both those injured and their families.
FHP officials are investigating the crash and working to determine what caused the northbound semitruck and vehicle to collide. Riordan said the scale of the accident and the damage to the roadway may make the investigation more difficult.
"Our investigators are the best of the best," he said. "There's no doubt in mind they’ll be able to conclude what transpired in this tragic event."
While FDOT officials are planning on reopening two lanes during the day Friday, Roberts said they will be closing one again overnight to work on the road.