7 Dead in Church Van Crash Involving Two Semi-Trucks

At least seven people, including five children, died when a church van became entangled in a collision involving two semi-trucks on I-75 north of Gainesville, Florida, on Thursday, January 3, 2019. The church vehicle was on its way from Louisiana to Walt Disney World in Orlando when the tragedy occurred. Another eight people suffered injuries in the collision, which illustrates the catastrophic consequences of accidents involving passenger vehicles and semi-trucks.

 Church Van on its Way to Disney World Before Crash 

The church van from Avoyelles House of Mercy in Marksville, Louisiana, was only hours from its destination when the collision occurred at around 3:40 p.m. Investigators are looking into what caused the accident, but Florida Highway Patrol said that the accident was triggered by a northbound collision involving a big rig veering into a passenger car. The two vehicles then smashed through the guardrail and collided with the southbound church van and another semi-truck, which was also traveling south.   

After it collided with the tractor-trailer, the church van rolled over, ejecting some of the passengers. A fifth vehicle was unable to stop in time to avoid the wreckage and drove through the scene. Highway Patrol said it was possible that car hit victims who were ejected from the vehicles involved in the crash.    

Five children in the church van and the two semi-truck drivers died in the crash.

  • Cierra Bordelan, 9, of Marksville
  • Brieana Descant, 10, of Marksville
  • Cara Descant, 13, of Marksville
  • Joel Cloud, 14, of Marksville
  • Jeremiah Warren, 14, of Marksville
  • Douglas Bolkema, 49, of Albuquerque
  • Steve Holland, 59, of West Palm Beach

Those injured in the crash include:

  • Chance Bernard, 9, of Hessmer
  • Trinity Woodward, 9, of Hessmer
  • Chelsea Laborde, 11, of Marksville
  • Noah Joffrion, 14, of Mansura
  • Ali Laborde, 30, of Marksville
  • Robyn Rattray, 41, of Gainesville
  • Amy Joffrion, 45, of Mansura, who drove the church van
  • Karen Descant, 50, of Marksville

The injured survivors, most of whom had serious or critical injuries, were taken to two local hospitals, while a helicopter was brought in to ensure there were no injured people in the woods along the interstate.    

The collision caused approximately 50 gallons of diesel to spill across Interstate 75, resulting in a massive fire that damaged the roadway. Traffic along that section of the interstate was shut down in both directions for hours as authorities cleared the scene.  

Witnesses Describe Florida Truck Crash Scene

Vinnie DeVita was driving south only slightly ahead of the crash. He told reporters he looked in his rearview mirror and saw the accident directly behind him.

"If I had stepped on the brake when I heard the noise, undoubtedly, I would have been in that accident," DeVita said. "And then within probably 15 to 20 seconds of it all, it exploded. I mean, just a ball of flames." 

Nicole Towarek and her family were traveling in the opposite direction when they passed the scene. She called the heat "insane" and noted seeing explosions, fire, black smoke and people on the ground near vehicles.  

Investigators Treated Deaths in I-75 Crash as Potential Homicides 

Initial reports indicated investigators were treating the crash as a possible homicide investigation, although they did not state why that was the case.

A report from KALB News indicates that the truck driver involved in the initial northbound crash, Steve Holland, received multiple tickets between 2000 and 2014 in numerous states for a variety of violations. Those violations included speeding, driving an overloaded vehicle, and driving an unsafe vehicle.  

At a news conference the morning after the crash, Troy Roberts from Florida's transportation department said investigators would look into all aspects of the crash, including whether the road or the guardrail played any role. When asked whether the guardrail had an engineering defect that allowed the tractor-trailer and car to smash through it, Roberts said that guardrails are not designed to prevent all accidents and the force of the crash may have been too much for the rails.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) typically investigates crashes such as this one; however, due to the government shutdown, NTSB investigators are not currently assisting with the investigation. As a result, the highway patrol will investigate the crash, although the investigation could take months.  

United Pentecostal Church Releases a Statement Following Church Van Crash 

The United Pentecostal Church released a statement noting that there were nine children and three adults, including a pregnant woman, on the bus. The church's initial statement indicated that the pregnant woman gave birth shortly after the crash and the baby and mother reportedly both survived, but the church later corrected its message to note that the baby was not delivered but the pregnancy had been stabilized. The church notes that the four children who suffered injuries were expected to recover.  

Gainesville Church Honors Victims 

The Pentecostal church in Gainesville held a service in honor of the crash victims on Sunday, Jan. 4. Hundreds of people—church members and not—attended the service, which included songs and prayers for the victims. The same church also said it would pay for the children's burial plots.

"It's affected everybody," Lemoine said. "That's what's so terrible about this. You have a horrible accident, with kids going to Disney to enjoy themselves, and this happens. It's just beyond belief."