Evidence suggests that a tractor-trailer never braked before it rear-ended a car full of siblings and shoved it into a stopped school bus on a rural highway, killing all seven children in the car, state troopers said.
Authorities were looking into whether the truck had a mechanical failure or whether its driver was tired or talking on a cell phone, among other possibilities, Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Lt. Mike Burroughs said. Also, a sample of 31-year-old Alvin Wilkerson’s blood will be tested for alcohol, Burroughs said.
“We want to know why he didn’t see a big, large school bus,” Burroughs said.
The grandfather of the siblings, who are adopted and ranged in age from 1 to 15, died after Wednesday’s crash.
William Scott, 62, “had a massive heart attack tonight over all this,” the children’s mother, Barbara Mann, told CNN. “I can’t deal with it.”
The siblings — the only people in the car — were two miles from home after school when they stopped behind the bus on the highway, where the speed limit is 60 mph.
Fire destroyed car
After the wreck, the car and the truck caught fire. Nothing remained of the car but ashes, Union County Sheriff Jerry Whitehead said. The bus ended up 200 feet from where it was struck, facing the opposite direction.
“It was horrible. People were screaming, children were wandering around, two were laying (in) the middle of the road,” said Joy Clemins, who lives nearby. “It is like they were walking around in a dream.”
Wilkerson, the bus driver and all nine students aboard the bus were injured. At least six victims remained hospitalized Thursday.
The car was being driven by a 15-year-old sister who had only a learner’s permit and was at the wheel illegally.
“Even though she was an underage driver, it’s my understanding she did not cause the accident,” her aunt Tina Mann told CNN. “The same thing would have happened had there been an adult in the car with her. We’d just have one more death in the family.”
Tina Mann said her niece had dropped off another child and was taking her siblings home to get ready to go to church.
Family and friends gathered Thursday around a campfire at the siblings’ home at the end of a dirt road. A swing set sat empty in the front yard.
A woman who declined to give her name said relatives didn’t want to talk Thursday. A sheriff’s deputy then asked reporters to leave.
Authorities identified the siblings as 15-year-old driver Nicki Mann; Elizabeth Mann, 15; Johnny Mann, 13; Heaven Mann, 3; Ashley Kenn, 13; Miranda Finn, who was 8 or 9; and Anthony Lamb, who was 1.
High school sophomore Tara Brown said Nicki Mann was her best friend and that she came to the school to pick up the children every day.
Three students from the bus were in serious condition and two were in good condition, hospital officials said Thursday. The bus driver was also hospitalized in stable condition.
Hours after the accident, residents flocked to evening services at First Baptist Church. “Union County is going to need, in the days and weeks and months ahead, a lot of hope,” James Croft told about 30 people.
The National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the accident.
Wilkerson had a valid commercial driver’s license, according to the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. He was cited in 2000 for driving with a suspended license and was twice cited for operating a vehicle in unsafe condition, in 2000 and 2001.
Details were not immediately available, according to state officials.