Barbara and Terry Mann were supposed to complete their adoption of a 20-month-old boy on Thursday. Instead, they were planning funerals for him and their other four children — all killed in a fiery car wreck.
The accident Wednesday, which also killed two young relatives, cast a pall over this small town of about 2,000 people in northern Florida. After hearing of the accident, Barbara Mann’s grief-stricken father suffered a heart attack and died.
“It’s hard to fathom what it’s like to lose five children, two nieces and a father in one shot. It seems like a burden too big to bear,” said Scott Fisher, a family spokesman and pastor at the Lake Butler Church of Christ.
Friends and family came together to mourn the deaths of the seven children as investigators tried to piece together how the three-vehicle accident happened on a clear day on a road free of obstructions.
A tractor-trailer rear-ended the children’s car and crushed it against a school bus that had stopped to drop off students, authorities said. The car burst into flames, and everyone inside was killed, including 15-year-old Nicky Mann, who was driving illegally with just a learner’s permit and was apparently taking her adopted siblings home from school. Three children on the bus were seriously injured.
Along with Nicky, who was the Manns’ biological child, and soon-to-be-adopted Anthony Lamb, the other victims were identified by authorities and friends as the Manns’ three adopted children — Elizabeth, 15; Johnny, 13; and Heaven, 3 — and the couple’s nieces, Ashley Keen, 13, and Miranda Finn, 8. Authorities had originally identified the victims as seven adopted brothers and sisters.
Parents there for foster children
Members of the community described the Manns as a couple who lovingly and constantly opened their home to foster children.
Tammy Griffins, the church’s student ministry director, said: “If foster care called them, it didn’t matter what time of night it was when they got called, they were always willing to take them.”
“They wanted 10 children,” said Wanda Lewis, director of children at Fellowship Baptist Church in Raiford. “They just had a heart for the love of children that no one else wanted, the ones that no one else would have taken.”
Lewis said Nicky was “just a fun, loving, caring girl” who doted on her adopted siblings. “She did everything for them, changed their diapers. She was the mother hen,” Lewis said.
The children’s relatives declined to talk with The Associated Press. But Tina Mann told CNN that her niece Nicky had dropped off another child and was taking her siblings home to get ready for church.
“Even though she was an underage driver, it’s my understanding she did not cause the accident,” 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.”
Tara Brown, a sophomore at Lake Butler High School, said that Nicky was her best friend and that she picked up the other children from school every day.
Steven Murphy, head of Partnership for Strong Families, declined to comment when asked whether his agency knew Nicky apparently often drove illegally to pick up the children, saying he wanted to wait until the accident investigation is finished.
The private agency contracts with the state to handle foster care in the area.
Unclear if brakes didn’t work
Charges were pending against the 31-year-old truck driver, Alvin Wilkerson of Jacksonville. He suffered minor injuries. Wilkerson declined comment through his father-in-law, Deangelo Heysercy. Outside Wilkerson’s house, Heysercy said only that “my heart goes out to that family.”
The Florida Highway Patrol initially reported that there were no brake marks on the road to indicate the trucker tried to stop. But David Rayburn of the National Transportation Safety Board said investigators have not determined that yet.
Authorities were looking into whether the truck had a mechanical failure or the driver was tired or talking on a cell phone, among other possibilities, Highway Patrol spokesman Lt. Mike Burroughs said. Also, a sample of Wilkerson’s blood will be tested for alcohol, Burroughs said.
The trucker was cited in 2000 for driving with a suspended license and twice, in 2000 and 2001, for operating a vehicle in unsafe condition, according to state officials.
The road is straight and flat in the area. Four fatal crashes have occurred along that part of the road over the past five years, Burroughs said.
Grief counselors and others were on hand Thursday to help students deal with the tragedy in Lake Butler, which is about 60 miles southwest of Jacksonville.
“We’re just talking about all the good times we had with them. And just trying to remember all that. They’re just in such shock,” Griffins said.