It was Palm Sunday and the faithful from the Independent Haitian Assembly of God in Fort Pierce, Fla., had just attended the Palm Sunday revival meeting in Fort Myers, Fla., as they do every year, where the pastor, Guy Veillard, had welcomed them with open arms and joy, as he always has. They looked elegant as the 18 congregants squeezed into the church’s big white van, a Dodge Ram Wagon B3500 Maxi, meant to seat only 15.
They had made this two-hour journey late at night for years without incident, east on Rt. 78 to Rt. 27 through the farmland in Glades County near Lake Okeechobee and then on to Fort Pierce on Florida’s west coast, usually with the same driver, Volsaint Marsaille, who was familiar with the van and the route. “He was an incredible driver, an awesome man,” Tama Lexine, a daughter of the Assembly’s pastor told WFTS in Tampa Bay. “And I love him like my own father.” And it was a calm, clear night, nothing to suggest anything would go wrong.
Nobody’s sure what went wrong this time. Nozaire Nore, a migrant farmworker who was in the van, told reporters through a translator that the driver failed to notice a curve in the road and couldn’t stop in time. Pastor Veillard told NBC2 he “heard that the driver hit something” and lost his “balance” and that a lot of people were already hurt before the worst happened.
Where State Rt. 78 meets U.S. 27, there’s a “T” intersection with a stop sign. If you stop and turn, you’ll be fine. If you’re moving fast enough and fail to stop, you’ll wind up down a steep hill and into a murky canal that parallels 27. “They didn’t see that stop sign. They shot right through it,” Glades County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Duane Pottorff said.
There are quite a few accidents involving these big church vans. In 2013, three passengers were killed and 13 injured when a Seventh-day Adventist church van’s tire blew, causing it to flip on a southwest Florida highway, according to AP. That same year, five members of a Baltimore Victory Outreach church died in Illinois when their van careened off a highway as they drove back from a California conference. In 2011, five members of a Baptist church in Louisiana lost their lives when their van overturned on a highway.
They can be old, unwieldy and sensitive to overcrowding. Keith Halloway, a spokesman for National Transportation Safety Board, told reporters: “This type of vehicle its center of gravity is up a little bit anyway. … It’s a large vehicle so if the standard specs call for a maximum seating capacity of 15, that’s the maximum seating capacity because anything over that — you know — it could be potentially dangerous.”
The 911 call came around midnight from a driver, so far unnamed by police who had seen a man waving and stopped. He saw the front of the van protruding from the canal, as if it had reached the other side, leaving the rear portion partially submerged. He could hear a man yelling for help and other voices also yelling. And he knew it was serious. “There’s probably some dead people in there,” he told the 911 operator.
There were eight dead people in there. They were Volsaint Marsaille, 58, the driver; Jude Petit-Frere, 66; Obernise Petit-Frere, 59; Lifaite Lochard, 58; Madeleine William, 53; Wanie Larose, 60; Dazilla Joseph, 79 and Servilus Dieudonne, 71. Ten others were injured, some critically, including a 4-year-old girl, Faeyana Desirus.
Another survivor, Nicolas Alexis, 57, told reporters he was sitting in the second row of the van. “I had four people fall on my shoulder so I pulled them out and hit their window,” he told NBC2. “The sheriff told me ‘you’re really lucky.'”
Phillipe Dorce, 34, told the News-Press said his father-in-law and cousin were in the van. He got a call about 1:15 a.m. and drove over to the site to help police identify bodies. “I was there trying to be a man. But at the same time, I’m crying too.”
The Independent Haitian Assembly of God is not a large church. Maybe it has 300 members, most of them immigrants from Haiti over the past few decades. Some of them had been waiting back at the church for the group to return and were still clustered there later Monday morning.
“It’s heartbreaking,” church member Dina Sarver told WINK News. “Because it is so many of us. You know there are people there at the church waiting. We’re two hours away. It was supposed to be simple. Go. Have fun. Come back. It just didn’t turn out to be like that.”
“Pray together, in church together, singing together, now they gone,” church member Roseline Jacques said.
More from Morning Mix