'It's a national tragedy': Young victims of Alabama highway crash were traveling home from beach trip when tragedy struck

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. — What was supposed to be the end of an exciting beach trip ended in a horrific 17-vehicle wreck Saturday that killed 10 people, including several young children, on an interstate just south of Montgomery, Alabama.

One week after their trip to Gulf Shores, Alabama, began and less than two hours from home — a Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch van caught fire, killing eight children inside.

Four young teens who were residents of the ranch, and two children who had accompanied the group on the beach trip, died in the van's wreckage, Alabama Sheriffs Youth Ranches CEO Michael Smith said late Sunday afternoon.

The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency on Sunday evening declined to name the minor victims, but said they included a 3-year-old, an 8-year-old, a 12-year-old, a 14-year-old, a 15-year-old, two 16-year-olds and a 17-year-old. They were pronounced dead at the scene, according to the agency.

Two children of ranch employee Candice Gulley, who was driving the van, were among those who died in the crash, Smith said. Gulley, the director of ranch life at Tallapoosa, was pulled from the wreck and has been hospitalized.

"Candice has been with us for years as a house parent, and she has raised over 80 children who have called her mom," Smith said. "She's a super lady who has given her life to raising not-so-fortunate children."

Gulley had worked with children for years, beginning when she and her husband were house parents at the ranch for seven years.

Cody Fox, 29, and his 9-month-old daughter Ariana Fox, were killed in a multi-vehicle wreck on Interstate 65 in Butler County Saturday, June 19, 2021.
Cody Fox, 29, and his 9-month-old daughter Ariana Fox, were killed in a multi-vehicle wreck on Interstate 65 in Butler County Saturday, June 19, 2021.

The wreck also killed 29-year-old Cody Fox, of Marion County, Tennessee, and his 9-month-old daughter, Adriana Fox. They were traveling in another vehicle with Fox's fiancee, who was hospitalized in intensive care as of Sunday afternoon.

The crash, which left 17 vehicles strewn along the interstate, happened at about 2:30 p.m. Saturday in Butler County, south of Montgomery, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency said. Vehicles likely hydroplaned on wet roads, said Butler County Coroner Wayne Garlock.

The wreck blocked traffic in both directions for most of the day. Seven of the 17 vehicles caught fire at the scene.

"It was a horrific scene," Butler County Sheriff Danny Bond said. "It was the worst traffic accident I've witnessed in my life."

The National Transportation Safety Board tweeted that it was sending 10 investigators to the area Sunday to investigate the crash, photos of which showed at least four burned vehicles, including two large trucks. It said the inquiry would focus on vehicle technologies such as forward collision warning systems, fuel tank integrity and occupant survivability.

“My heart goes out to the loved ones of all who perished,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement.

The ranch, a nonprofit, provides "Christian, family-style residential homes for Alabama's needy, neglected, or abused, school-age children in an atmosphere where they may grow spiritually and physically into productive, responsible, and happy adults," according to its website.

"I would love for your readers to pray for us to get through this tragedy because we are going to have to keep moving forward because there are a lot of children in Alabama that need our help," Smith said. "It's not just a ranch tragedy, not just an Alabama tragedy — it's a national tragedy.

The Us Flag flies at half mast Sunday, June 20, 2021, in Camp Hill, Ala.,  at the Alabama Sheriff's Girls Ranch which suffered a loss of life when their van was involved in a multiple vehicle accident Saturday, resulting in eight people in the van perishing. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)
The Us Flag flies at half mast Sunday, June 20, 2021, in Camp Hill, Ala., at the Alabama Sheriff's Girls Ranch which suffered a loss of life when their van was involved in a multiple vehicle accident Saturday, resulting in eight people in the van perishing. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

"We lost these girls who were ready to break a cycle. They were ready to raise their children better than we raised them, and this horrific accident took that from our girls. Please pray for our ranch family because we need that, and prayer works."

Former ranch resident and Montgomery attorney Beverly Howard created an online fundraiser for the Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch on GoFundMe to help with funeral expenses, to assist with Gulley's medical costs, and to provide counseling for the girls and staff at the ranch.

The teens in the van who died, Howard said, were members of the ranch's independent living home, meaning they were entering their senior year of high school or had recently graduated.

The ranch, located in Tallapoosa County, serves girls ages six and up.

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There were others on the trip to Gulf Shores. A second van carrying girls from the ranch was so far behind the wreck that they didn't learn about the deaths until Saturday night.

"They didn't see the accident," Howard said. "They were sitting so far back so by the time that they got to it, it was gone, and they didn't know it'd happened till they got home later at 8:30 at night."

In a social media post, officials from Reeltown High School in Notasulga said the Tallapoosa program "is part of our Reeltown High family" and offered counseling and prayer support Sunday in the school's cafetorium.

"Please keep Tallapoosa Girls Ranch and the Reeltown family in your prayers!" the school posted on Facebook.

Contributing: The Associated Press.

This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Alabama highway crash: GoFundMe started for young victims' families