ALACHUA COUNTY, Fla. — Five children and two adults were killed in a fiery crash on the afternoon of Thursday, January 3, near Gainesville. The five children were on their way to Disney World, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
The deceased have been identified as Steve Holland, 59, Douglas Bolkema, 49, Joel Cloud, 14, Jeremiah Warren, 14, Brieana Descant, 13, Cara Descant, 10, and Cierra Bordelan, 9.
According to the Florida Highway Patrol, six people, including four children, ages 14, 11, 9 and 9, remain hospitalized several days after the crash.
Alachua County Fire Rescue says the crash occurred at 3:42 p.m. Thursday in the southbound lanes of I-75 near mile marker 393 north of Northwest 39th Avenue. The crash involved two tractor-trailers, a church passenger van and a mid-size four-door sedan, according to Florida Highway Patrol. As of Friday morning, all northbound lanes of I-75 reopened. Only one southbound lane in the area is currently open.
The two deceased adults were driving the tractor trailers and the five deceased children were passengers in the church van.
Nine children and three women, including a pregnant woman, were in the van from Avoyelles Parish in Marksville, Louisiana, said Kevin Cox, Louisiana District Superintendent for the United Pentecostal Church.
The pregnant woman and her unborn child are both stable at the hospital, FHP confirms.
One of the five children who died was the granddaughter of a pastor, the church said.
According to the Florida Highway Patrol, a tractor-trailer driven by Steve Holland, 59, was traveling in the right lane on northbound I-75 when, for an unknown reason, it traveled into the path of the mid-size four-door sedan that was traveling northbound in the center lane. When the tractor-trailer and sedan made impact, they crashed through the center median and guardrail.
After crossing the median, the tractor-trailer struck the church passenger van, which was traveling southbound on I-75 at the time in the center lane. The impact caused the church van to overturn multiple times, ejecting an unknown number of occupants. The tractor-trailer then struck another tractor-trailer, driven by Douglas Bolkema, 49, that was traveling southbound in the right lane at the time of impact.
When the tractor-trailers collided they both caught fire, along with the mid-size four-door sedan.
The fire was put out around 5:15 p.m. Thursday. Fire officials say that 50 gallons of diesel fuel spilled as a result of the crash.
A helicopter responded to the scene to help with locating possible patients that may have been ejected during the crash.
There was a significant amount of damage to the road due to the fire. All northbound lanes of I-75 reopened at 8 p.m. Thursday and southbound lanes reopened over the weekend.
"This is a big investigation. It’s a large scene. There’s a lot of people that have lost their lives. We are working as diligently as we can, but we are going to be very thorough about this investigation. Our priority at this point is to make next of kin notification, but we have to know who those people are," FHP Lt. Patrick Riordan said.
The UF Health emergency response mass casualty plan was activated at approximately 4:25 p.m. Thursday due to the accident. Six patients arrived at UF Health and are being cared for by UF Health faculty and staff.
The church superintendent released the following statement:
Yesterday, January 3, 2019, a van load of people from our United Pentecostal Church in Marksville, Louisiana (pastor Eric Descant) were on their way to Orlando, Florida. For some unknown reason, a large tractor-trailer truck crossed the median of I-75 near Gainesville, Florida and crashed into the church van. Sister Karen Descant, the pastor’s wife, and two other adult ladies were on board the van. In addition, nine children were also on the van. Sadly, five of those children did not survive the accident. Pastor Descant was not with them, but is at the hospital there in Gainesville with those who survived. Sister Karen Descant has seven broken ribs, a broken collarbone, multiple bruises, cuts, etc. Pastor Descant’s words were, “She is pretty banged up. One of the ladies is pregnant and "pretty banged up", but doctors have been able to keep her and her unborn baby stabilized. The other lady is not as severely injured, but is still in the hospital. The four children all have injuries, but the medical staff feel that all of them will heal and recover. One of the five children who died in the accident, was the granddaughter of Pastor Descant. It is possible that many of you have already been made aware of the accident because it made national news. But, you may not have heard that it was our own people who were involved. Pastor Jimmy Toney (pastor in Gainsville) and his wife have been with our people almost the entire time since they were transported to the hospital. They and their church have been exceedingly kind in this horrific tragedy. Please pray for the healing of those physical injuries. And, perhaps even more so, pray for that church family that has been so massively affected by this tragedy. Please pray for the families who lost precious children, the other accident victims, all involved in the rescue efforts, and the church family. They will need our prayers in the coming weeks and months.
The deaths are considered traffic homicides, a highway patrol spokesperson said.