ALACHUA, Fla. – The truck driver at the center of a fiery Alachua County crash that killed him, another trucker and five children received several traffic tickets over the years, according to court records.
Seven people died and at least eight others were injured, some seriously, Thursday afternoon when a tractor-trailer and car collided, crossed the median of Interstate 75 north of Gainesville and struck an oncoming big rig and a passenger van before bursting into flames, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
Five of nine children in a church van from Marksville, Louisiana, which troopers said was headed to Disney World, died. Those killed ranged in age from 9 to 14.
The drivers of both big rigs also died.
Three adults and four other children in the van survived.
"I can tell you it's a heartbreaking event," FHP Lt. Pat Riordan said.
The Highway Patrol said two vehicles traveling north -- a tractor-trailer and a car -- smashed into each other and then burst through a metal guardrail, slamming into another semitrailer and the southbound van carrying the children. Diesel fuel leaked, and the mass erupted into a fireball, the Highway Patrol said.
A fifth car, unable to avoid the chaos, sped through and hit people who were thrown from the van, the Highway Patrol said.
According to the Highway Patrol, a truck driven by Steve Holland, 59, of West Palm Beach, was traveling north in the far-right lane when his truck suddenly veered left and collided with a car driven by Robyn Rattray, 41, of Gainesville.
Both the truck and car went out of control and through the center divider, where Holland's truck plowed into the church van, driven by Amy Joffiron, 49, causing it to flip several times and eject some of the nine children on board. The Highway Patrol said it is unknown if any were wearing seat belts.
Holland's truck then struck a truck driven by Douglas Bolkema, 49, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, who was also traveling south. Both trucks and Rattray's car caught fire, and a fifth vehicle hit at least one of the ejected van passengers.
Rattray and Joffiron suffered serious injuries, as did the four surviving children, who were also ages 9 to 14. They remain hospitalized, as did Karen Descant.
Authorities identified the dead children as Joel Cloud and Jeremiah Warren, both 14; Cara Descant, 13; Briena Descant, 10; and Cierra Bordelan, 9.
Court records show Holland received numerous tickets between 2000 and 2014 in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Virginia for violations such as speeding, driving an unsafe vehicle, driving an overloaded vehicle and not carrying proof of insurance. Bolkema received a ticket in 1997 for following too closely.
Debris, including personal property and vehicle parts, was scattered across the road, troopers said. A helicopter helped search for any victims who may have been in nearby woods.
Vinnie DeVita said he was driving south at the time and narrowly escaped the crash. He said he saw it happen in the rearview mirror, immediately behind him, according to a report by WKMG.
"If I had stepped on the brake when I heard the noise, undoubtedly, I would have been in that accident," DeVita said. "And then within probably 15 to 20 seconds of it all, it exploded. I mean, just a ball of flames."
The fire was so intense that authorities said it damaged parts of the road and the aftermath closed part of the highway in both directions, causing massive delays. Authorities reopened the northbound lanes around 8 p.m. Thursday, one southbound lane early Friday and another by noon. Saturday all lanes were reopened after road repairs were made.
Nicole Towarek was traveling northbound with her family when they came across the scene. She told the Gainesville Sun that black smoke billowed, people were laid out near vehicles, there were long skid marks across the roadway and emergency workers were converging on the area.
"We kept seeing these little explosions and fire," she said. "The heat, it was insane."
The National Transportation Safety Board would normally send a team to help with the investigation, but cannot because of the federal government shutdown. Riordan said that will not impede the Highway Patrol's efforts, which could take months.
FDOT spokesman Troy Roberts said the agency is investigating whether the guardrail should have stopped the northbound crash from crossing the highway or whether the crash was too severe.
"The guardrails are there to stop as much as they can, but there are some things they cannot," Roberts said.
This was the worst accident on I-75 in Alachua County since January 2012 when 11 people died in a chain-reaction crash attributed to heavy fog and smoke on the roadway, which crosses Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. Officials were criticized then for not closing the road due to worsening conditions, and later installed cameras, sensors and large electronic signs to help prevent similar crashes.