ATLANTA – Girls have often lived a life of abuse, abandonment or neglect by the time they land at a Christian youth home in rural Alabama, but an annual trip to the beach with the director and her family offered them a bright spot in otherwise tough times.
This year’s trip to the Gulf Coast ended in disaster when four residents of the Tallapoosa County Girl’s Ranch, two of the director’s children and two guests were among 10 people killed in a fiery crash on a rainy highway as Tropical Storm Claudette barreled through Alabama.
In all, the storm took 14 lives before it rolled through the Carolinas and headed out to sea, where it was expected to dissipate. A 24-year-old man and a 3-year-old boy were killed Saturday when a tree fell on their house just outside Tuscaloosa, and a 23-year-old woman from Fort Payne, southeast of Huntsville, died after her car ran off the road into a swollen creek, authorities said.
Search dogs located the body of a man believed to have fallen into the water during flash flooding in Birmingham, according to news outlets.
The van in Saturday's crash erupted in flames in the wreck along a wet Interstate 65 about 35 miles (55 kilometers) south of Montgomery. Butler County Coroner Wayne Garlock said multiple vehicles probably hydroplaned in the vacationer-heavy area he said was “notorious” for dangerous conditions where the northbound highway curves down a hill to a small creek.
The van was carrying children ages 4 to 17 who were being cared for at the ranch, which is operated by the Alabama Sheriffs Association and takes in abused and neglected children, including foster children. The group was heading back to the ranch near Camp Hill, northeast of Montgomery, after a week at the beach in Gulf Shores.
A U.S. flag flew at half-staff at the ranch on Monday, and bouquets of flowers decorated a sign. Grim-faced workers and volunteers came and went in silence as the chief executive struggled to keep his emotions in check.
“I know that we lost eight of our children. That’s what I know,” said Michael Smith.
Smith said there were two vans from the camp along with a car pulling a trailer loaded with suitcases. The lead van was involved in the crash, he said.
“Many of our children have never even seen the beach, so it’s an annual event that we’re able to take these children down there,” he said. This was the first visit back to the beach after the COVID-19 pandemic, "and we were so excited.”
The crash also claimed the lives of two people in another vehicle — a 29-year-old Tennessee man and his 9-month-old daughter. Other people were injured.
Smith said victims included Ben Gulley, who would have turned 4 on Tuesday and was the son of ranch Director Candice Gulley, the van’s only survivor, who was pulled from the flames by a bystander. Another of her children, age 16, was also killed.
Four others killed were ranch residents, and two were guests, Smith said.
A GoFundMe page started to pay the funeral expenses of the two guests, 12-year-old Josiah Dunnavant and 8-year-old Nicholas Dunnavant, said the boys were Gulley's nephews.
“Words cannot explain what I saw,” Smith said of the accident site, which he visited Saturday. He returned from Gulf Shores in a separate van and did not see the crash when it happened.
Gulley remained hospitalized Sunday in Montgomery in serious but stable condition. In a Facebook post from earlier this year, she described her love for the work that the ranch does.
“This place holds a huge place in my heart and its mission has become my personal mission,” Gulley wrote.
Volunteers delivered food Monday to the ranch, which is on a section of a two-lane county highway lined with white wooden fences. Sheriff’s cars and orange traffic barrels blocked the road leading to the area where girls live in homes with their house parents.
Students and community members gathered for a prayer service Sunday at Reeltown High School, the school the girls attended. One of the surviving girls, who was traveling in a separate vehicle, wept as she spoke about her "little sisters," al.com reported.
“When people hear about the ranch, they usually assume that the girls have done something wrong or bad to get there. But that’s not the case,” said the teen, who was not identified because she is in state custody.
“These girls have been through so much, and they were such strong, wonderful, kind family members, and it was my privilege and my honor to be their big sister,” she said.
In Camp Hill, Smith said those affiliated with the ranch were in a “state of grief” but would work on healing.
“In the Bible, it says God won’t put anything on us that we can’t handle, and we’ve questioned that quite a bit these past few days," Smith said. "But God’s got big shoulders, and we know that our only way to get through the grief that we have right now is with prayer.”
Chandler reported from Montgomery. Jeff Amy in Atlanta, Amy Forliti in Minneapolis, Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina, and Julie Walker in New York contributed to this report.