Accident kills 7 children


An aerial view of a three-vehicle crash on U.S. 121 Wednesday.

The Associated Press
Published: Thursday, January 26, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 26, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
Seven members of a Lake Butler family, ranging in age from 21 months to 15 years, were killed Wednesday afternoon in a traffic crash on State Road 121 involving a partially loaded Union County school bus, a car and a tractor-trailer.
Eleven others, including the nine children on the school bus, were injured. Three of the children taken to Shands at the University of Florida were in serious condition late Wednesday and two children were listed in fair condition.
Three patients were taken to Shands Starke, including the driver of the tractor-trailer, Alvin Wilkerson, 31, of Jacksonville. Late Wednesday, Wilkerson and another of the patients at Shands Starke had been treated and released, and the third was still being treated and was listed in good condition.
The school bus was carrying students from Lake Butler Elementary School, Lake Butler Middle School and Union County High School in Lake Butler. The bus driver, Lillie Perry, 48, of Lake Butler, was still in a hospital Wednesday night, but her injuries were not considered life-threatening, according to Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Lt. Mike Burroughs.
The accident occurred about 3:40 p.m. on SR 121 near SW 75th Way, about three miles south of Lake Butler. The school bus, whose passengers ranged in age from 5 to 16, was stopped in the northbound lane, apparently unloading passengers, Burroughs said.
The driver of the Jacksonville-based Crete Carrier Corp. tractor-trailer, which was hauling bottled water, crashed into the rear of the car that was stopped behind school bus No. 13. The car and tractor-trailer caught fire and the car was reduced to "ashes," said Union County Sheriff Jerry Whitehead, killing all seven of its occupants.
Children in the car Burroughs said the occupants of the car ranged in age from 21 months to 15 years, and one of the teenagers was driving. Florida law requires a minor driver with a learner's permit to be accompanied by an adult, but he said there was no adult in the car.
All the victims who died, some of whom were adopted, lived about a mile north of the crash site, troopers said.
Their identities were confirmed to The Sun by Tina Mann, a member of the family. The children killed were Cynthia Nicole Mann, 15; Elizabeth Mann, 15; Johnny Mann, 13; Heaven Mann, 3; Anthony Lamb, 21 months; Ashley Keen, 15; and Miranda Scott, 10. Tina Mann said Anthony Lamb was in the process of being adopted.
Johnathon Warfel, 20, said he was home on his day off from work when his cousin, Wesley Mann, 19, called him about the accident. Warfel's half-sister, Cynthia Mann, was driving the green Pontiac Bonneville.
Tina Mann told The Sun that Cynthia Mann had picked the children up from school and had only a learner's permit. She said she wasn't sure if Cynthia routinely drove the children to and from school.
Steve Sheffer, trauma center administrator at Shands Jacksonville, said three medical evacuation helicopters were dispatched to the accident scene within 20 minutes after the EMS call was received in Jacksonville. ShandsCair, based at Shands at UF, and two TraumaOne helicopters from Shands Jacksonville and Lake City carried three injured victims to Shands at UF, a flight of about 10 minutes. Two others were transported by ambulance.
Burroughs said evidence at the scene showed that the tractor-trailer did not brake before hitting the car. The posted speed limit in that section of the road is 60 mph.
He said that as of Wednesday night, no charges had been filed against Wilkerson, but that the investigation was continuing.
The bus ended up 200 feet from where the car struck it, and the cab of the truck lay overturned near the scene, Burroughs said.
The bus was at an approved bus stop. The National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending a team of investigators.
'Horrendous' scene Joyce Clemons, 53, who lives on SW 75th Way, heard the crash.
"Horrible. I knew it was a bad accident," she said. "I went out the door dialing 911, and there was a little girl pinned at the back of the bus and she was partially through the window. She was halfway in and out of the bus. I told her to just be still. Help was on the way. She was in a daze."
The bus landed in her driveway against a pine tree, facing the opposite direction it had been traveling, Clemons said.
"There were children wandering around," she said.
Clemons said she found a boy complaining of shoulder pain and a girl who had bumps on her head and was crying for her mother.
She described the scene as "horrendous." "Parents trying to get to the scene," Clemons said. "Rescue personnel trying to get to the scene."
Clemons said she didn't even realize at first that a third vehicle was involved. It was too badly burned to tell what it was, she said.
The Pontiac landed in woods on the east side of the road, Burroughs said.
"It's mangled metal," he said. So badly damaged was the vehicle that there was initially confusion among law enforcement officers whether it was a van or a passenger car.
Officials were still trying to recover the bodies in the car at 7 p.m.
'The worst accident' Agencies from at least three counties and the state were on the chaotic scene. Grief counselors, victim advocates and representatives of the Red Cross were there, along with about a dozen media outlets.
Early on the scene were doctors and nurses from the Department of Corrections' nearby North Florida Reception Medical Center.
"I'm 21 years as sheriff and this is the worst accident I've been on," Whitehead said.
Capt. Garry Seay of the Union County Sheriff's Office said it's the worst traffic accident of his career as well.
"I don't know of one that's worse," he said. "It's just a tragic thing."
Superintendent Carlton Faulk of the Union County School District said he was on the scene about 10 minutes after it happened.
"We had kids on the road, our bus driver was out the door on the ground," he said. "It was very frightening. I was very scared - scared for the families, scared for the kids."
Sue Whitehead, a 1953 Union County High School graduate who has been a School Board member for the past 14 years, called the accident, "The most catastrophic thing I can remember happening to our schools. My heart is saddened with this tragedy."
She said the size of Union County, with about 15,000 residents and approximately 2,300 students, makes it a tight-knit community.
"We all know each other here and everybody comes out of the woods when something like this happens," Whitehead said. "People show up because they just want whoever is in trouble to know they are there and want to help."
Town tries to cope School officials said they planned to have counselors available in all three district schools to work with students in groups and on an individual basis.
SR 121 was expected to be closed until this morning.
Wayne Adams, 76, who has lived near the site of the accident for 17 years, said it took him about an hour to get back to his home.
"I'm glad I wasn't here," he said. "This highway is a death trap."
News of the crash traveled fast in Lake Butler on Wednesday afternoon.
Drivers lingered in gas-station parking lots near the scene of the accident, exchanging news and rumors.
"You have your minor accidents, but I've never seen anything like this," said Nancy Prater, 32, a clerk at the Fast Track gas station in Lake Butler. "For this small town, this is, like, really, really big. And everyone's so close, I'm sure everyone here knows someone or is related to someone who was in the accident."
Residents flocked to regularly scheduled Wednesday night church services, including those at the First Baptist Church on State Road 100.
After the service, which focused solely on coping with the tragedy, friends and neighbors consoled each other and shared stories about how the crash affected them.
"I used to be a bus driver, and when I heard, I just got the chills all over," said Allegra Saunders.
"It's just such a tragedy," said Lisa Johnson. "Not just on 121 but on 100, too. It seems like more people are killed by semis there than anywhere else. You just wonder: Do they really not realize people are stopped?"
Fatal accidents involving school buses are relatively rare. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 71 passengers and 42 drivers been killed since 1994 in school vehicles - an average of about 10 people per year.

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