Five Louisiana children on their way to Disney World were among seven people killed Thursday in a horrific highway crash near Gainesville, Fla., authorities said.
A big rig and a midsize sedan traveling north on Interstate 75 collided, jumped a guardrail and drove into the southbound lane, said Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Patrick Riordan.
The two vehicles then collided with a passenger van and a second tractor-trailer, sparking a massive fire fueled by 50 gallons of diesel, the Associated Press reported. A fifth vehicle drove through the crash debris, possibly striking some vehicle occupants who had been ejected, Riordan said.
In addition to the five children, both drivers of the trucks died. As many as eight other people were injured, authorities said, but the severity of their injuries was not clear.
“It’s a heartbreaking event,” Riordan said.
The Florida Highway Patrol said Friday that the children were 14-year-olds Joel Cloud and Jeremiah Warren, 13-year-old Cara Descant, 10-year-old Briena Descant and 9-year-old Cierra Bordelan. All were from Marksville, La., and were in a Pentecostal church van headed to the theme park.
The truck drivers were 49-year-old Douglas Bolkema of Albuquerque and 59-year-old Steve Holland of West Palm Beach, Fla.
Witnesses to the crash described a hellscape of explosions, scattered debris and bodies.
“We kept seeing these little explosions and fire,” Nicole Towarek told the Gainesville Sun. “The heat, it was insane.”
Vinnie DeVita said he was driving south on I-75 when he heard the crash. He told WKMG-TV that he looked in his rearview mirror and saw the destruction.
“If I had stepped on the brake when I heard the noise, undoubtedly I would have been in that accident,” DeVita told the station. “It was so shocking to know that it happened, and then within probably 15 to 20 seconds of it all, it exploded. I mean, just a ball of flames.”
When Florida Highway Patrol officers arrived, they found several vehicles consumed by flames and plumes of black smoke.
A law enforcement helicopter flew over the area, searching for injured people who may have ended up in the woods near the interstate.
The heat from the fire was so intense that it damaged the roadway, Troy Roberts of the Florida Department of Transportation said at a news conference Friday. The collision and fire closed the crucial north-south corridor for hours, causing major traffic delays. Maintenance crews on Friday were expected to work through the night to repair the interstate.
Authorities will continue investigating how the crash unfolded, and part of that investigation will look into the guardrail that failed to stop the initial big rig and sedan from crossing into the neighboring lane. “The guardrails are there to stop as much as they can,” Roberts said.
The condition of the crash scene could complicate the investigation.
“The damage from the fire was extensive,” Riordan said.