MARKSVILLE, La. (AP) — It was supposed to be a fun, post-Christmas trip to Disney World for 14-year-old Jeremiah Warren and his friends from a church in this small Louisiana town — "clean fun" as Warren's aunt described it. But then word came of a fiery crash on a Florida highway that killed seven people, including five children from this area traveling in a church van.
"We knew it had to be them," said Warren's aunt, Jacqueline Williams, sitting in the living room of her Marksville home. She'd just returned from church Sunday morning where she'd done the only thing she could: prayed.
"When they left you were looking for them to go have fun and enjoy themselves. No one expected anything like this to happen," she said.
The small town has been reeling since news spread that a church van from the Avoyelles House of Mercy traveling outside of Gainesville, Florida, was caught in a fiery crash involving two 18-wheelers Thursday. In addition to the five children in the church van, the two truck drivers were also killed in the accident. Officials said at least eight others were injured, some seriously.
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.
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 injured and his granddaughter killed. Cox said a total of nine children and three adults were in the church van.
Authorities identified the dead children as Joel Cloud and 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.
Williams described her nephew as an "easygoing" boy; Warren and Cloud were best friends, she said, who lived across the street from each other; two of the girls who were killed lived on either side of her nephew, she said.
Only about 5,500 people live in Marksville — the seat of Avoyelles Parish — about 165 miles (265 kilometers) north of New Orleans. The town's small size brought a level of personal connection to the tragedy — many people knew the victims' families personally or know friends and family who knew them.
As news of the tragedy spread, people gathered for vigils, or prayer services to remember the children and pray for their families and the survivors. Dozens of people gathered Saturday for a rosary at a Roman Catholic church. On Sunday morning, black ribbons hung on the doors of the Avoyelles House of Mercy where parishioners gathered. On Monday, a candlelight memorial service is being held at the town's high school football field where religious figures from across the small community are expected to speak.
The Rev. Carolyn Fletcher, who presided over Sunday's service at Marksville United Methodist Church, said they collected money for the families and prayed for the victims and their families. During a service in a different town earlier Sunday, she and the congregation read the names of the victims.
"In about every place you go, every church you go in, every restaurant you go in, it's mentioned," she said.
At The Chapel Ministry, pastors Angela and Danny Hargrove said they opened up the church on Friday so that people could gather, and mourn; during Sunday's service they prayed for the dead children and their families.
"If you're a parent or a grandparent and you have children it makes you think of your own. What would you do?" Danny Hargrove said.
Williams noted the importance of faith at helping people pull through the tragedy. She said they feel the pain of the other families who've also lost people in the accident.
"We are all family," she said. "We feel the pain of the other different families also. God is really the only one that can bring us through and bring the healing."