Panic, then grief as town learned of tragedy


Union County School officials gathered at the accident scene involving a school bus, car and semi truck on State Road 121 near Lake Butler. Left to right are Marcie Tucker, Lynn Bishop, Lake Butler Elementary School principal, Union County High School school nurse, Kim Libby and Principal Gail Lappalainen.

Photos by TRACY WILCOX/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, January 26, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 25, 2006 at 11:50 p.m.
LAKE BUTLER - It's every parent's worst nightmare.
News of a fatal chain-reaction crash that killed seven children Wednesday spread through this town quickly, sending many parents into a panic, not knowing if their children might have been killed.
One of the three vehicles involved in the crash was the No. 13 bus, carrying children home from Lake Butler elementary and middle schools and Union County High School.
Dozens of parents rushed to State Road 121, four miles south of town, many with their cell phones glued to their ears desperate for information from the scene where more than 100 law enforcement officers from agencies around North Central Florida worked for several hours investigating the crash.
Connie Eads, 36, of Worthington Springs, said her daughter had just gotten off a different school bus when she heard about the accident minutes later. After the crash aired on the television news, Eads said she got 25 calls in an hour from her friends and family asking if her daughter was OK.
"My heart was in my throat," Eads said. "I so feel for those parents."
Eads added that residents, who usually attend church on Wednesday nights here, were talking about the accident.
"This is a small town, so word travels fast," Eads said. "People are praying."
The deaths, however, were not from the bus. They came from a green Pontiac Bonneville that had stopped behind a school bus and was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer on northbound State Road 121, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
The Pontiac became engulfed in flames and killed all seven inside - ranging in age from 21 months to 15 years, the FHP said.
The nine children aboard the bus and the bus driver Lillie Perry, 48, were injured - some seriously and others with minor injuries, the FHP said.
At a makeshift command center, family members wailed in grief and some collapsed as they found out their loved ones had been killed. The American Red Cross came to the scene to assist emergency responders and grieving family members.
Wayne Roberts, whose wife, Carol, is related to the victims, said the entire family was in shock and congregating at the family home at 14727 SW 85th Trail.
"I've never been involved in anything like this," Roberts said.
Investigators said the road would likely be closed until this morning as tow trucks and forensic examiners worked to remove the bodies from the car, and the three vehicles from the scene.
Union County Sheriff Jerry Whitehead said the crash is the worst he has ever seen in his 21 years as sheriff.
"We're extremely close in the county," Whitehead said. "The impact of this is traumatic to the community."
Deborah Ball can be reached at (352) 338-3109 or balld@gvillesun.com

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