BUTLER COUNTY, Ala. — As Tropical Storm Claudette plowed through Alabama Saturday, June 19, a fiery pileup involving 12 vehicles, two of them big rigs, claimed the lives of 10 people and injured numerous others.
Nine of the 10 dead were juveniles ranging in age from 9 months to 17 years; the tenth was the 29-year-old father of one of the children.
The crash took place shortly before 2:30 p.m. at mile marker 138 on northbound Interstate 65 in Butler County, according to a statement released by the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA). When troopers with ALEA’s Highway Patrol Division reached the scene, seven of the vehicles had already burst into flames.
The Butler County Sheriff’s Office in a social media post Saturday night described the crash as the “worst ever” in the county.
“It is with heavy heart that I make this post,” the post read. “Butler County has had one of the most terrible traffic accidents that I believe is the worst ever in our county. Many vehicles were involved, many injuries and even deaths. Please pray for the families of the ones involved and first responders, law enforcement, EMS, wrecker services, fire departments, ALDOT, hospital personnel, volunteers, chaplains and anyone that assisted.”
Eight of the victims were traveling in a van from the Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch, a nonprofit organization sponsored by the Alabama Sheriffs’ Association that provides a home for abused and neglected children, including foster children. The names of the children have not been released.
The driver of the van, ranch director Candice Gulley, survived but two of her children, ages 4 and 16, were among the eight killed. Gulley was pulled from the flames by a bystander; on Monday, it was reported that she remained hospitalized in Montgomery, Alabama, in serious but stable condition.
The group was returning from an annual trip to the Gulf Coast.
A U.S. flag flew at half-staff at the ranch on Monday, and bouquets of flowers decorated a sign. Grim-faced workers and volunteers came and went in silence as the chief executive struggled to keep his emotions in check.
“I know that we lost eight of our children. That’s what I know,” said Michael Smith.
Smith said there were two vans from the camp along with a car pulling a trailer loaded with suitcases. The lead van was involved in the crash, he said.
“Many of our children have never even seen the beach, so it’s an annual event that we’re able to take these children down there,” he said. This was the first visit back to the beach after the COVID-19 pandemic, “and we were so excited.”
Also killed in the pile-up were Cody Fox, 29, of New Hope, Tennessee, and his daughter, Ariana Fox, who was 9 months old.
Butler County Coroner Wayne Garlock said multiple vehicles probably hydroplaned in the vacationer-heavy area he said was “notorious” for dangerous conditions where the northbound highway curves down a hill to a small creek.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey expressed her grief in a June 20 social media post.
“Yesterday was a tragic day for our state,” she wrote. “My heart goes out to the loved ones of all who perished during the storm in Butler & Tuscaloosa counties. Let’s keep these families, communities & first responders lifted in prayer.”
In a June 20 statement, Hal Taylor, ALEA’s Secretary of Law Enforcement expressed gratitude to the first responders and volunteers who assisted at the scene of the crash, noting that “investigating fatal crashes is one of the most difficult responsibilities of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.”
“(This) was an extremely heartbreaking day for the state of Alabama as 10 lives were tragically lost in one horrific event,” he said. “It was a difficult and unimaginable scene for many, and our thoughts and prayers are with all involved as we continue to investigate and provide closure for those affected.”
Justin Lovvorn, chief of police for the nearby town of Greenville, Alabama, on June 20 tweeted about the tragedy.
“Yesterday’s accident was the worst I have witnessed in my 25 years in law enforcement,” he wrote. “My deepest sympathies go out to the family and friends of all those touched by this tragedy. Please continue to pray for all those involved.”
The NTSB, in coordination with the Alabama Highway Patrol, sent 10 investigators to conduct a safety investigation of the crash, according to a June 20 statement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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