Packed into a passenger van, a dozen parishioners from a Louisiana Pentecostal church set off across north Florida on their way to Walt Disney World.
But the Avoyelles House of Mercy group never made it.
Late Thursday afternoon, their trip ended near Gainesville when the van they were traveling in was involved in a fiery crash on Interstate 75 that left five vehicles twisted together and in flames, seven people dead and eight more injured.
Five of those killed were passengers in the church van, authorities said. On Friday, Florida Highway Patrol identified them as Joel Cloud, 14, Jeremiah Warren, 14, Cara Descant, 13, Brieana Descant, 10 and Cierra Bordelan, 9, according to WCJB, an ABC TV affiliate in Gainesville, Fla.
Two truck drivers, Steve Holland, 59, and Douglas Bolkema, 49, died in the crash as well.
Karen Descant, wife of pastor Eric Descant, suffered seven broken ribs and a broken collarbone, Kevin Cox, superintendent for the United Pentecostal Church’s Louisiana district, said in a statement on Facebook. The Descants lost grandchildren in the in the wreck.
“It’s unbelievable. Everybody is in shock. We lost five of our children,” Maxine Doughty, a church member from Avoyelles Parish in east-central Louisiana, told the Gainesville Sun. “We had our Last Supper Sunday, and the pastor said to live our lives like each day is the last day.”
Another adult chaperone on the trip was pregnant, Cox said. He originally said the woman safely delivered her baby Thursday night, but WCJB later retracted that a child had been born, saying that the pregnancy of a woman injured in the wreck was not in danger.
Witnesses to the crash described crashing noises followed by a hellscape of fiery explosions, scattered debris and human bodies on the road.
Just before 4 p.m. Thursday, a big-rig truck and midsize sedan traveling north on I-75 collided, overtook a guardrail and drove into the southbound lane, said Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Patrick Riordan. The two vehicles then collided with the church passenger van and a second tractor-trailer rig — 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 upon impact, Riordan said.
Both drivers of the trucks were killed. As many as eight other people were injured, authorities said, but information was not available on the severity of their injuries. Cox’s statement said that the four surviving children from the church van were injured but are expected to recover.
The five children who died ranged in age from 8 to teenagers, authorities said. Riordan confirmed that the 12 occupants of the passenger van were traveling to Disney World.
Law enforcement officials are still notifying families of those who died and have not yet released the names of the victims.
“It’s a heartbreaking event,” Riordan said.
Three of the five children killed in the crash were students in Avoyelles Public Schools, Superintendent Blaine Dauzat said — a fourth-grader and a fifth-grader at Lafargue Elementary School and an eighth-grader at Marksville High School.
A fourth juvenile victim had been an Avoyelles schools student in the past, and the fifth was the child of an employee in the district’s central office, Dauzat said.
“It’s a very sad day here,” he said.
The district’s 5,300 students will return next Wednesday from the holiday break. Dauzat said the schools will have grief counselors available for students and staff and plan to organize some sort of activity to “allow them to have an outlet.”
"It’s going to be really tough in those classrooms when the kids walk in,” he said.
Travelers on the busy north-south corridor passed by the crash as thick plumes of dark smoke filled the air.
“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 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 highway patrol officers responded to the collision scene, 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 it caused damage to the roadway, Troy Roberts of the Florida Department of Transportation said at a news conference Friday. The collision and fire closed down the highway 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 nature of the crash scene could complicate the investigation.
“The damage from the fire was extensive,” Riordan said.
On Facebook, the local school board said in a statement “something like this always puts things in perspective. No family (including the APSB family) should have to go through this.”
The mayor of Marksville, John Lemoine, told the Gainesville Sun that news of the crash has touched everyone in the small town of 6,500.
"It’s affected everybody. That is what’s so terrible about this,” Lemoine told the newspaper. “You have a horrible accident, with kids going to Disney to enjoy themselves, and this happens. It’s just beyond belief. It just hasn’t set in yet, to just finish the Christmas holidays and have a new year start off with such tragedy.”
Jacquee Wahler, a spokeswoman for Disney World, said in a statement: “There are no words to convey the sorrow we feel for those involved in yesterday’s tragedy. We extend heartfelt condolences to the families and loved ones impacted by this tragic accident.”