Five children from a Louisiana church group headed for a Disney World vacation were among the seven killed in a fiery highway crash near Gainesville, Florida, officials said Friday.
The young victims were in a van coming from Marksville in Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana, when the deadly five-vehicle pileup happened on Interstate 75 at about 3:40 p.m. ET on Thursday, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
The two others killed were both drivers of two semi-trailers, one heading northbound and the other south.
“It’s a heartbreaking event,” Highway Patrol Lt. Patrick Riordan told reporters near the crash scene in Alachua County, Florida.
The children who died were identified as Joel Cloud, 14; Jeremiah Warren, 14; Cierra Bordelan, 9; Cara Descant, 13; and Brieana Descant, 10.
The drivers of the two big rigs who were killed were identified as Steve Holland, 59, of West Palm Beach, Florida, and Douglas Bolkema, 49, Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Among the eight people injured in the accident were four children, ranging in age from 9 to 14 years old, and four adults, the highway patrol said.
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There were 10 to 12 people in the van carrying the children who died, according to Riordan.
The van was carrying Pentecostal worshipers from the Avoyelles House of Mercy in Louisiana, on a trip to Walt Disney World, Avoyelles Public Schools Superintendent Blaine Dauzat told NBC News.
"It's pretty bad, in a system as small as us, it hits you hard, it really affects you," said Dauzat, head of the 5,300-student school system that's 160 miles northwest of New Orleans.
Three of the dead children were students in the public school system. They were in fourth, fifth and eighth grades, Dauzat said. The public schools in Marksville are still on winter break, with students off from classes until Wednesday.
"You never want to lose any child but I knew all three of these kids personally," Dauzat said. "All three were outstanding kids. Never in any trouble and outstanding grades."
One of the victims is the granddaughter of the church's pastor Eric Descant, according to a statement by Kevin Cox, superintendent of the Louisiana District of the United Pentecostal Church International.
"It's unbelievable. Everybody is in shock. We lost five of our children," church member Maxine Doughty said. "We had our Last Supper Sunday and the pastor said to live our lives like each day is the last day."
Karen Descant, the pastor's wife and a chaperone on the trip, broke seven ribs and a collarbone, in the crash, according to Cox. Another chaperone was a pregnant woman, who survived the crash, according to the church.
"Please pray for the healing of those physical injuries," Cox said, "And perhaps even more so, pray for that church family that has been so massively affected by this tragedy."
The accident unfolded on Thursday afternoon when a tractor-trailer and a passenger vehicle collided in northbound lanes and went through the guardrail into southbound lanes, officials said.
Those vehicles then crashed into another tractor-trailer and the van carrying the kids, authorities said. A fifth car, in the southbound lanes, could not avoid the pileup and might have hit victims ejected from their vehicles, officials said.
State officials said they'll examine the condition of guardrails at the scene, and determine if they should have provided more protection.
"The guardrails are there to stop as much as they can but there are some things they cannot," said Troy Roberts, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Transportation. "Unfortunately, in this case, they did not."
The Florida Highway Patrol is leading the probe. The National Transportation Safety Board would have sent a team of investigators to the crash scene — if not for the partial government shutdown, NBC has learned.