Alabama interstate pileup details emerge after 8 girls killed on way back from beach trip
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Alabama authorities have identified some of the 10 people who died during a major pileup on the interstate during stormy weather Saturday — eight of the fatal victims are girls from a youth home for abused and neglected children whose van burst into flames in the crash as they headed home from a beach trip.
Butler County Sheriff Danny Bond described a “domino effect” that happened as roughly 18 vehicles collided into each other at about 2:30 p.m. on Interstate 65, between mile markers 137 and 138. Two 18-wheel tractor trailers sandwiched a van from the Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch, ABC News reported.
A bystander rescued the ranch director who was driving the bus, identified by Bond as Candice Gulley, but was unable to pull the remaining eight occupants with ages ranging from 4 to 17. Bond said two of those killed were Gulley’s own children — ages 4 and 16. She remained hospitalized Sunday in Montgomery in serious but stable condition.
“She’s going to survive her physical injuries,” Michael Smith, CEO of Alabama Sheriffs Youth Ranches told the AP, after visiting the crash site. “This is the worst tragedy I’ve been a part of in my life.”
Smith said the van was heading back to the ranch near Camp Hill, northeast of the state capital of Montgomery, after spending a week at the beach in Gulf Shores. With Gulley’s two children, four others inside the van were ranch residents and two were guests.
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Some of the wreckage from a fatal multiple-vehicle crash a day earlier is loaded to be carried away, Sunday, June 20, 2021, in Butler County, Alabama. (Lawrence Specker/Press-Register/AL.com via AP)
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Butler County Sheriff Danny Bond described a "domino effect" that happened as roughly 18 vehicles collided into each other at about 2:30 p.m. on Interstate 65, between mile markers 137 and 138. (Lawrence Specker/Press-Register/AL.com via AP)
“Words cannot explain what I saw,” Smith said leaving the crash site as he drove to Tallapoosa Girls Ranch to speak to the remaining residents, who returned home from the Gulf Shores in a separate van and did not witness the accident. “We love these girls like they’re our own.”
Butler County Coroner Wayne Garlock identified another two people killed inside a separate vehicle — 29-year-old Cody Fox and his 9-month-old daughter, Ariana, both from Marion County, Tennessee, died.
“He was a great guy and we’re really gonna miss him,” said Aaron Sanders, who worked with Fox at the emergency management agency in Marion County. He said Fox also ran a hot tub business with his father and doted on his daughter. “He just loved her to death and that was his life.”
The deaths occurred as drenching rains from Tropical Depression Claudette pelted northern Alabama and Georgia late Saturday. Garlock said the location of the multivehicle crash is “notorious” for hydroplaning, as the northbound highway curves down a hill to a small creek. Traffic on that stretch of I-65 is usually filled with vacationers driving to and from Gulf of Mexico beaches on summer weekends.
Garlock told Fox News that his office would not be naming the minors killed who were in the custody of the Alabama Department of Human Resources’ (DHR) Child Protective Services.
Three children who died in the accident were in DHR custody. The department was working with a fourth child who was killed — but that child was not in DHR custody. DHR spokesman Dominic Binkley told Fox News the department is still assessing how the process of releasing names will work.
“Our hearts ache for all of the lives in this devastating accident,” Nancy Buckner, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Human Resources, said in a statement. “The Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch gave these young girls the gift of hope and empowered them to overcome hardship. As we remember their lives and mourn their loss, we take some comfort in knowing their hearts were filled with love, happiness and friendship all children deserve.”
Multiple people were also injured.
The National Transportation Safety Board tweeted that it was sending 10 investigators to the area Sunday to investigate the crash, which photos showed included at least four burned vehicles, including two large trucks. It said the inquiry would focus on vehicle technologies such as forward collision warning systems, fuel tank integrity and occupant survivability.
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 is Christian-based, would likely have a memorial service later, asking for prayers as he began to cry.
A GoFundMe account was set up for Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch to help offset the costs of funeral expenses, medical costs for the injured and counseling for those impacted.
Gulley had worked with children for years, beginning when she and her husband were house parents at the ranch for seven years.
“During those years, there have been 74 girls that have come through our house and called us mom and dad,” she told the Opelika-Auburn News in August 2019. She said she then became a relief parent, working on fundraising and being involved in the community, before she became the ranch director.
“My heart goes out to the loved ones of all who perished,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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