GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Hundreds gathered at a church in Gainesville Sunday evening to remember the lives of five children and two adults killed in a crash on I-75.
Some were members of the church, while others heard about what happened on the interstate and decided to attend the service to pray for the victims of the horrific crash.
The church said families were invited, but they’re not sure if any of them could attend because the victims were from Louisiana. Sunday's service, which began at 6 p.m., included prayer and songs.
The Pentecostal church in Gainesville said it also had decided to pay for the burial plots for the five children.
The children were in a church van headed south -- with just an hour to go before reaching Walt Disney World after a 700-mile trip from Louisiana -- when they got caught in a fiery deadly pileup involving two 18-wheelers on Interstate 75.
Those killed include the truck drivers, Douglas Bolkema, 49, of New Mexico, and Steve Holland, 59, of West Palm Beach. The children who died in the crash were Joel Cloud, 14, Jeremiah Warren, 14, Cierra Bordelan, 9, Cara Descant, 13, and Brieanna Descant, 10. Several others were seriously hurt.
On Friday, investigators were trying to determine what triggered the accident the previous afternoon 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.
The five children, from a Pentecostal church in Marksville, Louisiana, and the two truck drivers died. At least eight others were injured, some seriously.
Hundreds packed the pews of the Pentecostal church in Gainesville. Some showed up for evening worship, others to support families left heartbroken from the crash.
“(We’re here) to support the church and what they’re doing for all the people who were injured and killed,” church member Myrna Mason said. “It’s just so horrific.”
"It is a heartbreaking event," Lt. Patrick Riordan, of FHP, said Friday.
An unnamed volunteer from the Avoyelles House of Mercy church in Marksville, who was quoted in the Facebook page of U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., said the congregation lost "half of our babies" in the crash.
A message posted on the United Pentecostal Church International website and signed by Kevin V. Cox, the Pentecostal church's Louisiana district superintendent, 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."
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.
Church leaders called on other pastors Sunday to share words of encouragement with the grieving families who sat in the front of the sanctuary.
For some, it was a moment to offer a listening ear to the families of those victims.
“I would say just take it one day at a time,” church member Hannah Poole said.
Among those honored Sunday night were firefighters, police officers and nurses for their lifesaving efforts on Thursday.
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.