The church van packed with children was headed south -- with just an hour to go before reaching Walt Disney World after a 700-mile trip from Louisiana -- when it got caught in a fiery pileup involving two 18-wheelers that killed seven people, including five of the youngsters.
On Friday, investigators were trying to determine what triggered the accident the previous afternoon on Interstate 75 near Gainesville. The crash happened in clear weather on a straight, flat stretch of highway.
The Florida Highway Patrol said that two vehicles traveling north -- a tractor-trailer and a car -- smashed into each other and then burst through a metal guardrail, slamming into the van carrying the children and another semitruck. Diesel fuel leaked and the mass erupted in a fireball. A fifth car, unable to avoid the chaos, sped through, possibly hitting victims ejected from the vehicles, the Highway Patrol said
Five of the children, ranging from 9 to 14 years old -- from a Pentecostal church in Marksville, Louisiana -- and the two truck drivers died. At least eight others were injured, some seriously.
The Highway Patrol identified the five children from Marksville as 14-year-old Joel Cloud, 14-year-old Jeremiah Warren, 9-year-old Cierra Bordelan, 13-year-old Cara Descant and 10-year-old Brieanna Descant.
The semitruck drivers were identified as Steve Holland, 59, of West Palm Beach, and Douglas Bolkema, 49, of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
"It is a heartbreaking event," Lt. Patrick Riordan said Friday.
Identities of the victims have not been released, but an unnamed volunteer from the Avoyelles House of Mercy church in Marksville and quoted in the Facebook page of U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., said the congregation lost "half of our babies" in the crash.
According to a message posted on the United Pentecostal Church International website and signed by Kevin V. Cox, the Pentecostal church's Louisiana district superintendent, Cox said a van from a Pentecostal church in Marksville, Louisiana, was involved in the crash and identified the church's pastor as Eric Descant. He said the pastor's wife was among at least eight people who were injured and that his granddaughter was among the children killed.
According to Cox, a total of nine children and three women, including the pastor's wife, were in the van.
Family members identified the pastor's granddaughter Brieanna (pictured left). They said her favorite colors were pink and purple.
"We are family. Family sticks together for things like this and we look out for each other," Rebecca Tellier, Brieanna's cousin, told News4Jax by phone.
Tellier said the church members had been planning the trip to Disney World for a year.
"They've been saving up their money," she said. "They earned that trip to Disney World."
KALB-TV reports pastors from neighboring churches in Central Louisiana stopped by Avoyelles House of Mercy Friday to show their support.
"My heart just broke," said Richard Newman, with New Life Assembly of God. "The community, we need to come together. We need to be praying and supporting this church and families and the multiple families that are touched and devastated with this."
Avoyelles Parish School Board posted the following message on its Facebook page:
We are deeply saddened by the news of the terrible accident that a church youth group from our parish was involved in. Avoyelles Parish lost 5 young people in the accident. (3 of them were APSB students and the other two had close ties to our system.) Something like this always puts things in perspective. No family (including the APSB family) should have to go through this. We will help however we can. For now, please know that our thoughts and prayers are with these families. Please also know that we will do everything that we can for our students and staff most affected by this tragic event. All of our love goes out to each of them. They will be greatly missed."
Disney World spokeswoman Jacquee Wahler expressed the theme park's sympathies to the victims' families.
"There are no words to convey the sorrow we feel for those involved," she said. "We extend heartfelt condolences to the families and loved ones impacted by this tragic accident."
Riordan said the cause of the initial crash remains under investigation.
The Louisiana District United Pentecostal Church International has set up a fund for monetary donations for the Marksville church and families affected by the tragic accident. Donations and contributions can be made online or by mail to P. O. Box 248, Tioga, LA 71477.