Five Marksville area children were killed and several others injured in a fiery interstate crash while traveling to Walt Disney World with the Avoyelles House of Mercy Pentecostal Church.
The children were two hours north of the theme park when a semi-truck driving northbound suddenly veered left, striking a car. The two vehicles burst through the metal guardrail and into oncoming traffic in the southbound lanes.
The truck plowed into the church van driven by Amy Joffrion, 49, of Mansura, causing it to flip multiple times and eject some of the nine children on board. The Florida Highway Patrol said it is unknown whether any of the children were wearing seatbelts.
A fifth vehicle, unable to avoid the accident, struck at least one of the ejected van passengers.
The truck then plowed into another semi-truck and both trucks and the other passenger vehicle caught fire. Highway patrol said the cars became like a “fireball” after 50 gallons of spilled diesel fuel ignited the blaze.
"It's unbelievable. Everybody is in shock. We lost five of our children," church member Maxine Doughty told The Associated Press. "We had our Last Supper Sunday, and the pastor said to live our lives like each day is the last day."
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Florida Highway Patrol identified the children killed as 14-year-olds Joel Cloud and Jeremiah Warren, 13-year-old Cara Descant, 10-year-old Briena Descant and 9-year-old Cierra Bordelan.
One of the children killed was the granddaughter of church pastor Eric Descant, according to a release from Kevin Cox, the Louisiana district superintendent for the United Pentecostal Church International. It’s not immediately known which victim was related to the pastor.
Joffrion, the van’s driver, had posted photos of the smiling children on her personal Facebook page Thursday, declaring the group was “on our way” with an excitedly smiling emoji. Joffrion’s post was flooded with messages from community members offering prayers for the church members killed and injured in the crash.
In a Facebook post, Alex Madrigal, 21, of Bunkie, wrote he was at a loss for words over the tragedy.
“My heart goes out to these babies! I see these precious children every Sunday night service so I take them as my own,” he wrote. “These precious children will be deeply missed!”
The two truck drivers, 59-year-old Steve Holland, of West Palm Beach, and 49-year-old Douglas Bolkema, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, also died in the crash. Holland’s truck began the chain reaction that led to the pile-up.
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.
Cox’s release, posted on the Louisiana district’s Facebook page and the website for United Pentecostal Church International, said Pastor Descant’s wife, Karen, was in the vehicle at the time of the crash and suffered broken ribs, a broken collarbone, bruises and other injuries. Two other women were also in the vehicle, including a pregnant woman.
The pregnant woman was “banged up,” but she and the baby are expected to be OK, said the release. An earlier report from Cox erroneously stated the woman had given birth after the accident.
Pastor Descant was quoted in the release saying the four children who were injured are expected to heal and recover.
The car driver, 41-year-old Robyn Rattray, of Gainesville, and Joffrion suffered serious injuries. They remain hospitalized, as does Karen Descant, according to the Associated Press.
The injured include Ali Laborde, 30, of Marksville; Noah Joffrion, 14, of Mansura; Chelsea Laborde, 11, of Marksville; Trinity Woodward, 9, of Hessmer; and Chance Bernard, 9, of Hessmer, according to the Alexandria Town Talk.
"Please pray for the healing of those physical injuries. And, perhaps even more so, pray for the church and families that have been so massively affected by this tragedy," read the message from Kevin Cox.
Disney World spokeswoman Jacquee Wahler said Friday that "there are no words to convey the sorrow we feel for those involved."
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.
The National Transportation Safety Board would normally send a team to help with the investigation but cannot because of the federal government shutdown.
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 traumatic.
"The guardrails are there to stop as much as they can, but there are some things they cannot," Roberts said.
Advocate staff writer Katie Gagliano contributed to this article.