10 people, including nine children, die in fiery car crash as storm batters Southeast

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A fiery car crash on a rain-slicked highway killed 10 people, including nine children, Saturday afternoon in southern Alabama, where more than a dozen vehicles were wrecked during one of the first storms of this year’s Atlantic hurricane season.

Officials described the crash as one of the worst ever in Butler County, a rural area about 60 miles south of Montgomery with years of experience in battling inclement weather. The pileup began with a vehicle that probably hydroplaned as it drove on waterlogged roads across an Interstate 65 bridge, Butler County Coroner Wayne Garlock told The Washington Post. From there, he said, “it was just a chain reaction,” with cars and trucks careening into one another. Police said that 17 vehicles were involved and that seven caught fire.

Among the first to crash was a van owned by the Alabama Sheriffs Youth Ranches, a nonprofit organization that serves children who have faced abuse or neglect. Authorities said nine people, including eight children between the ages of 3 and 17, were inside, heading home from a beach vacation. The children, who have not been identified, were killed when the van collided with another car and burst into flames, Garlock said. A bystander pulled the driver from the van and she survived.

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“Our hearts are so heavy today,” Michael Smith, the organization’s chief executive, said in a statement. “It is such a horrible tragedy and loss.”

Two other people — Tennessee residents Cody Fox, 29, and his 9-month-old daughter, Ariana — died after their sport-utility vehicle crashed and caught fire, Garlock said. It was the impact of the crash that killed them, he added, not the flames. No other drivers or passengers suffered life-threatening injuries, he said.

Garlock, who is in his fifth term as coroner and with his wife has run emergency medical services in the county for nearly four decades, said he could not remember a more devastating incident.

“This, to us, is probably one of the worst we’ve ever seen in 38 years in Butler County,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot, but nothing of this magnitude.”

His ambulance was one of the first to respond on Saturday, and he described a chaotic, crowded scene where the danger from the collisions and the fires was immediately apparent.

“Everything was burned up by the time I got there. It was already engulfed in flames,” Garlock said.

The National Transportation Safety Board said Sunday night that it was sending a team to investigate the crash with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, which will determine whether it was weather-related. If it confirms Garlock’s assessment, it would add 10 fatalities to what has been a deadly run for Tropical Depression Claudette, which was downgraded from a tropical storm but was expected to strengthen again Sunday evening.

As Claudette swept across the Southeast over the weekend, it brought torrents of rain, flooding and tornadoes that destroyed dozens of homes. On Saturday evening in Tuscaloosa County, northwest of Montgomery, a 24-year-old father and his 3-year-old son were killed when a tree fell on their home, the Tuscaloosa News reported. And a 23-year-old in DeKalb County, in the state’s northeast, drowned after her car ran off a road during flooding, AL.com reported.

“Yesterday was a tragic day for our state,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) said Sunday on Twitter. “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.”

Forecasters expect Claudette to continue through Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas on Monday. It is the third named storm of the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season, which experts predict will be another busy one.

Whenever the heavy rains start, Garlock worries about the strip of highway where the crash occurred, which he said “has tendencies to hold water” and has been the site of “a lot” of accidents in the past. Water runs from a nearby hill and pools on top of the bridge, creating a hazard, he said, and Garlock and his wife have lobbied state lawmakers for renovations.

In a Facebook post, Sheriff Danny Bond said the crash was the worst he has seen: “Butler County has had one of the most terrible traffic accidents that I believe is the worst ever in our county,” he wrote.

Smith, the chief executive, told local news outlets that the van’s driver and only survivor, Candice Gulley, is recovering at a hospital. Gulley is the director of the Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch, a branch of the organization, which seeks to “provide Christian, family-style residential homes” for at-risk children, its website says.

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