Eight children in a van from an abused or abandoned children’s youth home were killed in a fiery multi-vehicle accident on a wet interstate that also killed a man and his baby in another vehicle, the most devastating blow of a tropical depression that claimed 12 lives in Alabama as it triggered flash floods and tornadoes that destroyed dozens of homes.
The crash happened on Saturday about 35 miles (55 kilometers) south of Montgomery on Interstate 65 after the vehicles likely slid on wet roads, Butler County Coroner Wayne Garlock said.
The van, which contained boys ages 4 to 17, belonged to the Tallapoosa County Girls’ Ranch, a youth home operated by the Alabama Sheriffs Association.
Michael Smith, the executive director of youth ranches, said the truck was heading back to the ranch near Camp Hill, northeast of Montgomery, after a week at the beach in Gulf Shores. It caught fire after the accident and Candice Gulley, the ranch manager, was the only survivor of the truck, pulled out of the flames by a passerby.
Gulley remained hospitalized in Montgomery on Sunday in serious but stable condition.
“She will survive her physical injuries,” Smith said. Two of those killed in the truck were Gulley’s children, ages 4 and 16. Four others were ranch residents and two were guests, Smith said.
“This is the worst tragedy I’ve ever been a part of,” said Smith, who drove to the ranch Sunday to speak with the remaining residents, who had returned from Gulf Shores in a separate van and did not see the remains of the shipwreck. .
“Words cannot explain what I saw,” Smith said of the crash site, which he visited on Saturday. “We love these girls as if they were our own daughters.”
The accident also claimed the lives of two other people who were in a separate vehicle. Garlock identified them as Cody Fox, 29, and his 9-month-old daughter, Ariana, both from Marion County, Tennessee.
“He was a great guy and we’re really going to miss him,” said Aaron Sanders, who worked with Fox at the Marion County emergency management agency. He said Fox also ran a hot tub business with his father and adored his daughter. “He just loved her to death and that was his life.”
Several people were also injured.
The National Transportation Safety Board tweeted that it would send 10 investigators to the area on Sunday to investigate the crash, photos of which showed at least four burned out vehicles, including two large trucks. He said the investigation would focus on vehicle technologies such as forward collision warning systems, fuel tank integrity and occupant survivability.
Meanwhile, a 24-year-old man and a 3-year-old boy were also killed Saturday when a tree fell on their home outside the Tuscaloosa city limits, said Captain Jack Kennedy of the Tuscaloosa Violent Crimes Unit. .
The deaths occurred when torrential rains from Tropical Depression Claudette hit northern Alabama and Georgia on Saturday night. Up to 12 inches (30 centimeters) of rain was previously reported from Claudette along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Flash flood alerts were released Sunday for eastern Georgia, two-thirds of southern South Carolina and the coast of North Carolina.
A tropical storm warning was in effect for North Carolina from Little River Inlet to the town of Duck on the Outer Banks. A tropical storm watch was issued from South Santee River, South Carolina, to Little River Inlet, forecasters said.
WBRC-TV reported that search efforts were also underway for a man believed to have fallen into the water during a flash flood in Birmingham. Crews used boats to search Pebble Creek.
Garlock said the location of the multi-vehicle crash is “notorious” from hydroplaning, as the northbound road curves downhill into a small stream. Traffic on that stretch of I-65 is generally packed with tourists driving to and from the Gulf of Mexico beaches on summer weekends.
“Butler County has had one of the most terrible traffic accidents,” wrote the county sheriff, Danny Bond, on Facebook, adding: “I think it’s the worst in our county.”
The Tallapoosa County school system said counselors would be available Sunday at the 225-student Reeltown High School, where some of the ranch residents were students. Smith said the ranch, which has a Christian base, would likely have a memorial service later, asking for prayers as he began to cry.
A GoFundMe account was created for the Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch to help offset the costs of funeral expenses, the medical costs of the injured and the counseling of those affected.
Gulley had worked with children for years, beginning when she and her husband were parents on the ranch for seven years.
“During those years, there have been 74 girls who have come by our house and have called us Mom and Dad,” she told Opelika-Auburn News in August 2019. She said that she later became a relief mother, working on raising money. funding and participating in the community, before becoming a ranch director.
“My heart goes out to the loved ones of all those who died,” Alabama Governor Kay Ivey said in a statement.
Claudette’s top winds hovered near 30 mph (45 kph) on Sunday. Forecasters from the National Hurricane Center predicted it would strengthen back to tropical storm status Monday in eastern North Carolina before heading out to sea in the Atlantic Ocean.
The center of Claudette’s disorganized circulation was located about 80 miles (128.75 kilometers) west of Columbia, South Carolina. It was moving east to northeast at 17 mph (28 kph), the National Hurricane Center said.
Aside from the rainy weather, it seemed like all was going as usual on North Carolina’s Outer Banks on Sunday.
At Ace Hardware in Avon, shift manager David Swartwood said they were preparing for what might come, but the general feeling was that it wouldn’t be too bad in that area. He said southerly winds don’t usually cause major flood problems, so “we don’t really anticipate any negative scenarios.”
“Everyone here has been through it many, many times, so we are used to exercise,” he said. “We have been prepared.”
For the hardware store, he said, that means having supplies like flashlights, batteries, tarps, generators, ropes and sandbags on hand. As of Sunday morning, there wasn’t much of a rush.
At Stack ’em High in Kill Devil Hills, a restaurant that specializes in pancakes, co-owner Dawn Kiousis said Sunday morning restaurant service was busy.
“We are serving as usual,” he said.
“You keep your eyes on the weather and prepare as much in advance as you can,” he said. “I just know that she is going to win. Mother Nature is going to do what she’s going to do, so get ready. “