AVOYELLES PARISH – The five children killed in a fiery Florida highway crash on their way to Walt Disney World have been identified along with the two truck drivers who also died. The crash happened Thursday.
On Friday, the Christian Family Worship Center in Mansura held a vigil to honor the children and pray for their families.
One of the children who was killed in the crash, 13-year-old Cara Descant, was in the 8th grade. Her teacher, Brandie Lee, attends the worship center and put the vigil together.
“She had a very close relationship with God. She would leave little notes of encouragement on my desk; she could tell when I was having a “teacher day,” like when you’re just annoyed. She would say, ‘God’s got you Mrs. Brandi. Look up to God.’ She would sign her name with a little dash and put Cara,” Lee said.
The Florida Highway Patrol identified the other four children as 14-year-olds Joel Cloud and Jeremiah Warren, 10-year-old Briena Descant, and 9-year-old Cierra Bordelan. All, including Cara, were from Marksville and were in a Pentecostal church van headed to the theme park when the accident happened Thursday afternoon outside of Gainesville.
The truck drivers were 49-year-old Douglas Bolkema of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and 59-year-old Steve Holland of West Palm Beach.
The van was an hour north of the theme park when Holland’s tractor-trailer heading in the opposite direction on Interstate 75 collided with a car, and both burst through the center divider. The van and Bolkema’s truck collided with the semi, bursting into flames.
Walt Disney World officials are expressing their sympathies to the families of the seven victims headed to the park. Spokeswoman Jacquee Wahler said Friday, “There are no words to convey the sorrow we feel for those involved.”
Many people are reaching out via phone, emails, and social media regarding a way to help financially during this tragic event. The Louisiana District UPCI has set up a fund for monetary donations for the Marksville church and families affected by this tragedy.
Send donations and contributions to the Louisiana District at https://ladistupc.com/payments/pledges-donations or by mail to: P. O. Box 248, Tioga, LA 71477. Note that 100% of the funds received will be forwarded to the Marksville church and affected families. None of the donated funds will remain in the Louisiana District Office.
KATC spoke with friends of those victims. Watch the video here:
The Superintendent of the Louisiana District of the United Pentecostal Church has issued a statement on the Florida crash, identifying several victims and giving an update on the condition of survivors.
Kevin Cox, the UPC Superintendent says that the United Pentecostal Church in Marksville was on their way to Disney World when the crash occurred.
— Chris Welty (@Chris_R_Welty) January 4, 2019
Karen Descant, the wife of the church’s pastor Eric Descant, was in the van along with two other adults. Nine children were also in the vehicle according to Cox. Of those children, five did not survive. One of the victims was identified as Pastor Descant’s granddaughter. She was not named.
No other information was given about the other children.
As for the extent of injuries, Cox stated that Descant received several broken bones and multiple bruises. A female passenger and unborn child are in stable condition as of Friday evening.
The four surviving children were injured, but Cox says they are expected to recover.
KATC’s Chris Welty spoke with the Avoyelles Parish School superintendent this afternoon, learning three of the children killed were in the Avoyelles Parish School system: a 3rd grader, a 4th grader, and an 8th grader. In addition, one of the victims was a former student, and one was the child of someone who works for the Avoyelles Parish School system. Schools will open up back up on Wednesday, and both schools in the area will have counselors on hand to help students.
See the full interview below:
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) – A church van packed with children was headed to Walt Disney World when it got caught in a fiery pileup involving two 18-wheelers. Seven people, including five of the youngsters, died in the crash.
On Friday, investigators tried to determine what triggered the accident, which happened outside Gainesville in clear weather on a straight, flat stretch of Interstate 75, a busy highway that connects Florida to the rest of the South.
Two vehicles traveling north – a tractor-trailer and a car – smashed into each other and then burst through a metal guardrail, slamming into another semitrailer and the southbound van carrying the children. Diesel fuel leaked, and the mass erupted into a fireball, the Florida Highway Patrol said.
A fifth car, unable to avoid the chaos, sped through and hit people who were thrown from the van, the highway patrol said. Five of the children from a Pentecostal church in Marksville, Louisiana, and the two truck drivers died. At least eight others were injured, some seriously.
“It is a heartbreaking event,” Lt. Patrick Riordan said Friday. He did not identify the church involved, but a member of the Avoyelles House of Mercy told The Gainesville Sun on Friday that her church was stunned. The children ranged in age from 9 to 14.
“It’s unbelievable. Everybody is in shock. We lost five of our children,” church member Maxine Doughty said. “We had our Last Supper Sunday, and the pastor said to live our lives like each day is the last day.”
Church officials did not immediately respond to phone calls.
In a statement posted on the United Pentecostal Church International’s Facebook page, Louisiana district superintendent Kevin Cox said a pregnant woman injured in the crash and her unborn child had been stabilized. Cox also said church pastor Eric Descant’s 50-year-old wife, Karen, was critically injured and his granddaughter was among the children killed.
The highway patrol says a truck driven by Steve Holland, 59, of West Palm Beach, was traveling north in the far-right lane when his truck suddenly veered left and collided with a car driven by Robyn Rattray, 41, of Gainesville.
Both the truck and car went out of control and through the center divider, where Holland’s truck plowed into the church van, driven by Amy Joffiron, 49, causing it to flip several times and eject some of the nine children on board. The highway patrol said it is unknown if any were wearing seatbelts.
Holland’s truck then struck a truck driven by Douglas Bolkema, 49, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, who was also traveling south. Both trucks and Rattray’s car caught fire, and a fifth vehicle hit at least one of the ejected van passengers.
Rattray and Joffiron suffered serious injuries, as did the four surviving children, who were also ages 9 to 14. They remain hospitalized, as did Karen Descant.
Authorities identified the dead children as Joel Cloud and Jeremiah Warren, both 14; Cara Descant, 13; Briena Descant, 10; and Cierra Bordelan, 9. The relationship between the Descant girls and the pastor was not immediately available.
Court records show Holland received numerous tickets between 2000 and 2014 in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Virginia for violations such as speeding, driving an unsafe vehicle, driving an overloaded vehicle and not carrying proof of insurance. Bolkema received a ticket in 1997 for following too closely.
Vinnie DeVita said he was driving south and narrowly escaped the crash. He saw it in the rearview mirror, immediately behind him, according to a report by Orlando television station WKMG .
“If I had stepped on the brake when I heard the noise, undoubtedly, I would have been in that accident,” DeVita said. “And then within probably 15 to 20 seconds of it all, it exploded. I mean, just a ball of flames.”
The highway is a busy transportation corridor. Its lanes fill daily with semis that barrel among other vehicles filled with tourists heading to and from Orlando, Tampa and South Florida.
The National Transportation Safety Board would normally send a team to help with the investigation, but cannot because of the federal government shutdown. Riordan said that will not impede the highway patrol’s efforts, which could take months.
Florida Department of Transportation spokesman Troy Roberts said the agency is investigating whether the guardrail should have stopped the northbound crash from crossing the highway or whether the crash was too severe.
“The guardrails are there to stop as much as they can, but there are some things they cannot,” Roberts said.
It was the worst accident on I-75 in Alachua County since January 2012, when 11 people died in a chain-reaction crash attributed to heavy fog and smoke on the road. Officials were criticized for not closing the road because of the conditions. They later installed cameras, sensors and large electronic signs to help prevent similar crashes.
A volunteer at the church said, “We have lost half of our babies.” Just heartbreaking. Psalm 34:18 https://t.co/EwUMO84MoT
— U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy, M.D. (@SenBillCassidy) January 4, 2019
The aftermath closed part of the highway in both directions, causing massive delays along the busy north-south corridor. Authorities opened the northbound lanes around 8 p.m. but all but one southbound lane remained closed Friday morning. Debris, including personal property and vehicle parts, was scattered across the road, the Florida Highway Patrol said. A helicopter helped search for any victims who may have been in nearby woods.
Nicole Towarek was traveling northbound with her family when they came across the scene. She told the Gainesville Sun that black smoke billowed, people were laid out near vehicles, there were long skid marks across the roadway and emergency workers were converging on the area.
“We kept seeing these little explosions and fire,” she said. “The heat, it was insane.”
It was the worst accident on I-75 in Alachua County since January 2012, when 11 people died in a chain reaction crash attributed to heavy fog and smoke on the roadway, which crosses Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. Officials were criticized then for not closing the road due to worsening conditions, and later installed cameras, sensors and large electronic signs to help prevent similar crashes.