Barbara and Terry Mann were supposed to complete their adoption of a 20-month-old boy Thursday. Instead, they were planning funerals for him and their other four children -- all killed in a fiery car wreck.
The accident Wednesday, which also killed two young relatives, cast a pall over this small town of about 2,000 people in northern Florida. After hearing of the accident, Barbara Mann's grief-stricken father suffered a heart attack and died.
"It's hard to fathom what it's like to lose five children, two nieces and a father in one shot. It seems like a burden too big to bear," said Scott Fisher, a family spokesman and pastor at the Lake Butler Church of Christ.
Friends and family came together to mourn the deaths of the seven children as investigators tried to piece together how the three-vehicle accident happened on a clear day on a road free of obstructions.
A tractor-trailer rear-ended the children's car and crushed it against a school bus that had stopped to drop off students, authorities said. The car burst into flames, and everyone inside was killed, including 15-year-old Nicky Mann, who was driving illegally with a learner's permit and was taking her adopted siblings home from school. Three children on the bus were seriously injured.
Along with Nicky, who was the Manns' biological child, and soon-to-be-adopted Anthony Lamb, the other victims were identified by authorities and friends as the Manns' three adopted children -- Elizabeth, 15; Johnny, 13; and Heaven, 3 -- and the couple's nieces, Ashley Keen, 13, and Miranda Finn, 8. Authorities had originally identified the victims as seven adopted brothers and sisters.
Members of the community described the Manns as a couple who lovingly opened their home to foster children.
Tammy Griffins, the church's student ministry director, said: "If foster care called them, it didn't matter what time of night it was when they got called -- they were always willing to take them."
Charges were pending against the 31-year-old truck driver, Alvin Wilkerson of Jacksonville, who sustained minor injuries. Wilkerson declined to comment.
The Florida Highway Patrol initially reported that there were no brake marks on the road to indicate the trucker tried to stop. But David Rayburn of the National Transportation Safety Board said investigators had not determined that yet.
Authorities were looking into whether the truck had a mechanical failure or whether the driver was tired or talking on a cellphone, among other possibilities, Highway Patrol spokesman Lt. Mike Burroughs said.