Family revisits dark day Lake Butler crash killed 7 kids two years ago


A memorial sits behind 'drive safely' signs at the crash site where seven children died in 2006.

Sun file photo
Published: Friday, January 25, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 25, 2008 at 6:25 a.m.

LAKE BUTLER - It starts with Thanksgiving, and continues through a season of holidays that used to be celebrations.

And after the holiday season, sisters Amanda Scott and Barbara Mann have to get through today: The second anniversary of the crash involving a school bus, a car and a tractor-trailer on State Road 121 that killed their seven children.

"This time of year, it seems like there's something every month," said Lori Knight, a cousin to both Scott and Mann who is serving as the family spokeswoman. "I don't know that one holiday or anniversary is worse than another for them. It's just that it's one day after another that they have to get through."

Tonight, Knight said, the family plans to gather with other community members for a candlelight vigil to remember the day they'd just as soon forget.

On Jan. 25, 2006, investigators say a tractor-trailer on State Road 121, roughly three miles south of Lake Butler, crashed into a car carrying Scott's two children and Mann's five, pushing the car into the back of a stopped Union County school bus.

Cynthia Nicole "Nikki" Mann, 15; Elizabeth Mann, 15; Johnny Mann, 13; Heaven Mann, 3; Anthony Lamb, 20 months; Ashley Keen, 14; and Miranda Finn, 10, were killed.

The school bus driver and nine children on the bus were sent to area hospitals. Two children were hospitalized for months, and some of the other children still suffer from serious injuries, according to their parents.

The driver of the truck, Alvin Eugene Wilkerson, 33, of Jacksonville, is facing multiple counts of vehicular homicide, manslaughter and culpable negligence.

Wilkerson has a pre-trial hearing on April 23, with a trial expected in May, said Spencer Mann, a spokesman for the State Attorney's Office.

Union County Sheriff Jerry Whitehead said the unresolved criminal case has kept the tragedy alive for many Lake Butler residents.

"The crash is still a topic that's discussed around town, and I think the fact that the criminal case has not concluded is one of the reasons," Whitehead said. "That will mark the end of another chapter in this - possibly the final chapter."

Wilkerson's attorney, Larry Turner, said Wilkerson accepts responsibility for the crash, and said he "continues to grieve for the children and the families and the bus driver who were involved."

"He greatly regrets the hurt and loss that they have suffered and his responsibility for it," Turner said. "He accepts, and we accept, that he is responsible for the crash. As his lawyer, I do not accept that he is criminally responsible."

Turner said Wilkerson keeps Jan. 25, 2006, in his mind on a daily basis, and said the anniversary of the crash would be no exception.

"Mr. Wilkerson is a highly religious man, and he tells me that he prays for those families constantly," Turner said.

Most of the civil lawsuits filed against the Nebraska-based Crete Trucking Corp. on behalf of the victims of the crash are also unresolved.

Of the six civil lawsuits filed against Wilkerson and the trucking company after the crash, five are still outstanding, according to Union County Courthouse staff.

Doris Elixson said the civil lawsuit she filed on behalf of her daughter, Ceceilia Elixson, who was injured in the crash, was settled out of court. The terms of the June 25, 2007, settlement are sealed, according to Union County courthouse staff, and Doris Elixson declined to disclose the amount.

Doris Elixson said recovery has been slow in coming, and said her daughter still needs surgery to repair back and knee injuries she suffered.

Ceceilia, who is now 17, has graduated from high school with her GED, and is the mother of a 9-month-old baby girl, Doris Elixson said.

"We have a new baby in the house now, so that helps," Doris Elixson said. "She's doing good overall. It was a bad day for everyone. Everyone's just trying to get on with their lives."

Corina Vaughn said her two children, eighth-grader Cody Vaughn and sixth-grader Dalton Sumner, who were both treated and released from area hospitals after the crash, are still coping with the psychological effects of the tragedy.

But she said two years later, things are better than they were.

"We really started getting back on track again maybe eight months ago," said Corina Vaughn. "They still have their nightmares, but it's not near as often and not near as bad as what it used to be."

Two years later, the site of the crash on State Road 121 is still adorned with flowers, crosses, teddy bears and figurines of children and angels. The flower petals are crisp and bright, and none of the teddy bears or other mementos is weathered.

The children's graves are similarly adorned, Knight said, as is the site of William Edwin Scott's grave. Scott, 70, of Hawthorne, grandfather of several of the children who were killed, died of a heart attack a few hours after learning of the crash.

This is how the Mann-Scott family celebrates holidays, birthdays and anniversaries: by honoring the ones with whom they can't celebrate.

"Every holiday, they go to the grave sites together," Knight said. "They just make the rounds from one cemetery to the next, and make sure they put out something new for all the holidays, whether it's Christmas or Valentine's Day or a birthday."

This is their greatest tragedy and their only comfort, Knight said: The fact that the crash affected so many members of one family means the family members can truly identify with each other.

"They've got each other," Knight said. "(Barbara and Amanda) talk several times a day. No matter what happens, each one of them has someone else who knows exactly what the other one is going through."

Tonight, Knight said, Amanda Scott and Barbara Mann will participate in a candlelight vigil with members of the community. They will find comfort by visiting the crash site together.

"They get through it," Knight said. "That's all they can do on a day like that, is get through it."

Amy Reinink can be reached at 352-374-5088 or reinina@gvillesun.com.

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