FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A Florida pastor said Sunday he is working with authorities to help identify the five people killed and 25 injured when a bus carrying Haitian farmworkers and a tractor-trailer collided in the Panhandle.
Wakulla County first responders work on the scene of an accident on Saturday, July 2, 2016 in Wakulla, Fla. The Florida Highway Patrol says a bus and tractor trailer collided on a highway in the Panhandle. Florida Highway Patrol Capt. Jeffrey Bissainthe says the bus was carrying between 30 and 35 passengers and was from Georgia. (Joe Rondone /Tallahassee Democrat via AP)
The Rev. Frantz Gaudard of Belle Glade said the bus driver and several passengers were members of the First Haitian Community Church. He said the bus had come from Georgia, where the farmworkers were employed.
Authorities said the bus was carrying roughly 34 adults and children when it ran a flashing red light and a stop sign before hitting the tractor-trailer Saturday. Both vehicles caught fire.
Guadard, the church’s pastor, said several people are in intensive care.
“Some of them are in and out of conscious so it’s very difficult to identify them. Most of their documents were burned in the crash as well,” he said.
The farmworkers did not speak English. Authorities had not released any additional details on the crash or identities of the victims by midday Sunday. It’s unclear who owned the bus or who employed the farmworkers.
“Right now we’re trying to figure out who’s missing from the community, who they haven’t heard from,” Guadard told The Associated Press in a phone interview.
Guadard said he spoke briefly by phone with the bus driver, 56-year-old Elie Dupiche, who was hospitalized in critical condition. Dupiche has also driven buses for the church and is a very qualified driver, a “wonderful guy, very quiet guy and willing to serve,” the pastor said.
Wakulla County Sheriff Charlie Creel described the crash as one of the worst he’d ever seen. He said the bus, a retired school bus model built in 1979, hit just behind the driver’s door of the tractor-trailer on first impact and then spun around and hit it again as the vehicles went off the road and came to rest under a power line.
Both vehicles burst into flames and deputies jumped onto the bus to rescue victims, many who were unable to move.
“If these deputies had not done that, we would have had a lot more fatalities,” the sheriff said, adding they were eventually “driven back” by the flames that then fully engulfed the tractor-trailer.
Authorities said the bus was headed south on a north-south state road when it collided with the tractor-trailer, which was westbound on U.S. 98 — a Florida coastal highway.
The driver of the tractor-trailer, Gordon Sheets, 55 of Copiague, New York, was killed. His passenger, 21-year-old Rafael Nieves of Sound Beach, New York, was not injured, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. The sheriff said a young child was also among those killed on the bus.
Guadard said the farmworkers had just finished working in Georgia and were heading home to rest for a few weeks before heading to New England for apple and berry season.
“It’s a tragedy that this happened,” he said.