A tragic bus crash in Florida killed seven people, including five children who were traveling to Disney World with members of their church. The bus crash occurred when a semi-truck driving in the opposite direction veered out of control, through a guardrail, and into oncoming traffic, colliding with another semi-truck and the church bus. The catastrophe illustrates how deadly bus accidents can be for passengers.
Church Trip to Disney World Turns Tragic on I-75
It was supposed to be a fun-filled trip to Florida for the young members of a Louisiana Pentecostal church, but tragedy unfolded as their church bus traveled through Florida near Gainesville. At around 3:40 pm on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, their vehicle collided with a semi-truck driving in the opposite direction. The collision, which ultimately involved five vehicles, sparked explosions and a massive fire that one witness referred to as “a ball of flames.”
Authorities are still investigating what caused the initial crash that sent the semi-truck into oncoming traffic. According to early reports, the tractor-trailer and another car—both traveling North on I-75—collided and veered through the guardrail into southbound traffic where they both hit the church bus and a second tractor-trailer. A fifth vehicle, possibly unable to stop in time to avoid the wreckage, drove through the crash scene. Officials from Florida Highway Patrol said it was possible the fifth vehicle hit some victims who were ejected from their vehicles.
“Once those semis struck, they both caught on fire, as well as the passenger car,” said Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Patrick Riordan. He called the crash “a heartbreaking event.”
The two semi-truck drivers and five children in the van died in the collisions. At least eight other people suffered injuries, though all remaining injured victims were expected to recover. The wreckage and resulting fire led authorities to close that section of I-75 in both directions as debris was cleared and rescuers searched in the nearby woods for any other victims. Some lanes were not reopened until the following day.
Victims of Church Bus Crash Near Gainsville Remembered
The children who died were from Marksville, Louisiana and ranged in age from 9 to 14. Friends and family said they had saved up their money to pay for their trip to Disney World. Officials identified them as:
- Cierra Bordelan, 9, of Marksville
- Brieana Descant, 10, of Marksville
- Cara Descant, 13, of Marksville
- Joel Cloud, 14, of Marksville
- Jeremiah Warren, 14, of Marksville
The two semi-truck drivers, Douglas Bolkema, 49, and Steve Holland, 59, also died in the crash. Holland, whose semi-truck was the first involved in the crash, purportedly received tickets for careless driving and speeding in 2003 and 2004 as well as other tickets up to 2014.
Eight other people suffered injuries in the tragedy. They are:
- Chance Bernard, 9, of Hessmer
- Trinity Woodward, 9, of Hessmer
- Chelsea Laborde, 11, of Marksville
- Noah Joffrion, 14, of Mansura
- Ali Laborde, 30, of Marksville
- Robyn Rattray, 41, of Gainesville
- Amy Joffrion, 45, of Mansura,
- Karen Descant, 50, of Marksville
One of the injured is a pregnant woman. Doctors reportedly stabilized her and her unborn baby. Karen Descant, the church pastor’s wife, was in critical condition with broken ribs and a broken collarbone. She was released from the hospital in Florida on Jan. 23 and transported to an orthopedic hospital in Louisiana.
Following the crash, the Pentecostal church in Gainesville held a service in honor of the bus crash victims and said it would pay for burial plots for the children who died. The service also honored the first responders who aided the victims.
Witnesses Describe “Insane” Heat in Truck and Bus Accident
Nicole Towarek was just behind the crash and saw the fallout from the tragedy, including skid marks across the road, black smoke and explosions. The heat from the fire, fueled by 50 gallons of diesel, was “insane,” she told reporters.
Vinnie DeVita was driving south and was immediately ahead of the collision.
“If I had stepped on the brake when I heard the noise, undoubtedly, I would have been in that accident,” he said. “And then within probably 15 to 20 seconds of it all, it exploded.”
Investigators Looking into Cause of Florida Church Bus Crash
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was alerted to the crash but was not able to investigate it right away due to the government shut down. The NTSB could still determine a probable cause and make recommendations to prevent future accidents, but will likely rely on reports from local investigators and first responders. In the meantime, Florida Highway Patrol is investigating the crash.
Florida Highway Patrol said it was conducting a homicide investigation into the Florida bus crash but did not say why it was undertaking such an investigation.