Updated at 2:57 p.m. ET
Seven people — including five children from Louisiana who were headed to Disney World — were killed in a crash involving two semitrucks and a number of passenger vehicles in Northern Florida on Thursday.
Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Patrick Riordan said at a news conference that as many as eight people were injured and taken to local hospitals in what he called an “extensive” and fiery wreck.
At about 3:40 p.m. ET, a semitruck and a car traveling north along Interstate 75 near Gainesville collided, crashed through the center guardrails and smashed into a southbound semitruck and a church van carrying the children. The trucks burst into flames. Another car then slammed into the wreckage.
The children ranged in age from 8 years old to teenagers and were traveling from Avoyelles Parish in central Louisiana, Riordan said. In a Facebook post, Kevin Cox of the Louisiana district of the United Pentecostal Church International said the van was carrying members of its Marksville, La., congregation. Nine children were in the van at the time of the accident, as were three adult women.
“One of the ladies was pregnant,” Cox said. “They delivered her baby last night, and the baby is going to be okay.”
Among the children who died was the granddaughter of the congregation’s pastor, Eric Descant. His wife was seriously injured in the crash. The four surviving children all sustained injuries but are expected to recover, Cox said.
“It’s just beyond belief,” Marksville Mayor John Lemoine told the Ocala Star-Banner. “We are a small community with 6,500 people in town. … It’s affected everybody. That is what’s so terrible about this.”
The drivers of the two semitrucks, both adult males, were also killed. Officials say they don’t yet know what caused the wreck and have opened an investigation.
Video from the scene showed bodies and debris strewn across the roadway as thick smoke billowed from the burning wreck.
“We kept seeing these little explosions and fire,” Nicole Towarek, who witnessed the crash, told The Associated Press. “The heat, it was insane.”
Dozens of gallons of spilled diesel fuel fed a giant fire that damaged the roadway itself, according to the AP. Traffic on Friday morning was still backed up for miles, reports Grace King of member station WUFT.
Officials at Friday’s news conference said repairs to I-75 would start Friday as they try to get all north- and southbound lanes open.
Riordan said the state highway patrol has notified the National Transportation Safety Board of the accident, although that agency is currently being affected by the prolonged partial government shutdown. NTSB investigators won’t be able to start an examination of the crash until the government reopens, King reports.
“It’s unbelievable. Everybody is in shock,” Maxine Doughty, a member of the Marksville congregation, told the Star-Banner. “We had our Last Supper Sunday and the pastor said to live our lives like each day is the last day.”