The close-knit community of the Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch, a Christian group home in Alabama, are now grappling with grief after nine children and one adult from their group died Saturday in a fiery crash on Interstate 65 in Butler County.
“I know that God won’t put anything on us that we can’t handle. But I will tell you I’ve had a lot of questions in the past 24 hours. But praying is healing,” Michael Smith, CEO of Alabama Sheriffs Youth Ranches, which opened the girls' ranch in 1973, told AL.com on Sunday.
“All those children in that van loved God and I know they’re in a much better place now, but it doesn’t mean I don’t grieve, and all these other parents and these other children don’t grieve and miss their sisters,’' he added.
The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency announced in a release Sunday night that their Highway Patrol Division was notified of a multi-vehicle crash on I-65 northbound at the 138-mile marker at approximately 2:30 p.m. Saturday.
Troopers found 17 vehicles, including two commercial vehicles, were involved in the crash and seven of them were on fire. The children from the group home were all pronounced dead at the scene. Their names were not disclosed by authorities who said they ranged in ages from 3 to 17. The other victims were Cody Fox, 29, of New Hope, Tennessee, and his 9-month-old daughter, who were all pronounced dead at the scene.
“Investigating fatal crashes is one of the most difficult responsibilities of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency,” ALEA’s Secretary of Law Enforcement Hal Taylor said in a statement. “Yesterday was an extremely heartbreaking day for the state of Alabama as 10 lives were tragically lost in one horrific event. I would like to offer my sincerest condolences to the friends and families of loved ones lost in Saturday’s terrible crash, as well as my gratitude to all of the first responders and volunteers who quickly and valiantly responded to the scene. It was a difficult and unimaginable scene for many, and our thoughts and prayers are with all involved as we continue to investigate and provide closure for those affected.”
According to the Alabama Sheriffs Youth Ranches website, their mission is to “provide 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.”
The girls at the Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch attended Reeltown School, “where they are involved in various extra-curricular activities,” including youth programs and work with their local churches. They also participated in an annual beach trip which they had just completed when the accident took place.
Smith told the Montgomery Advertiser that they were returning from a weeklong trip to the Gulf Shores when the Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch van caught fire. He said four teenagers who were residents of the ranch, along with two other children who had accompanied the group on the beach trip, died in the van.
"It's not just a ranch tragedy, not just an Alabama tragedy — it's a national tragedy,” Smith said.
"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.”
He said two of the children who died were the children of ranch director Candice Gulley, who was driving the van. Gulley was hospitalized after she was pulled from the wreck.
"Candice has been with us for years as a house parent, and she has raised over 80 children who have called her mom," Smith told the publication. "She's a super lady who has given her life to raising not-so-fortunate children."
Lacey Willis, a CNN producer who witnessed the accident while driving home to Atlanta from a family beach trip in Destin, Florida, with her husband and their 6-month-old daughter, said in a CNN report that about an hour before the crash the weather had been bad. When the accident occurred, there was a lot of water on the road even though "it wasn't downpouring."
She explained that when their vehicle got hit, she was in the back seat with her daughter. Seeing the danger, her husband told her to grab their baby and get away as far as she could from the scene.
"I'm barefoot, standing on I-65, walking, walking far enough away," she said. "I was just praying."
Former ranch resident and Montgomery attorney Beverly Howard launched a GoFundMe campaign for the Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch on Sunday to help with funeral costs, Gulley's medical costs, and counseling for the girls and staff at the ranch. As of Monday afternoon, more than $259,600 had been raised.
One of the surviving girls from the ranch who was recently accepted into a local college after living there for about two years said living at the home was like living with family.
“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,’' she told AL.com. “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.”
The van that crashed on Saturday was one of two returning from the annual beach vacation. A second van with residents from the ranch was traveling several miles behind the crash because they had stopped at Cracker Barrel for lunch, AL.com reported.
“I loved them so, so much. But I know we can rest easy in the fact that we know they’re in Heaven,” the teenager said of her deceased ranchers.
“What the ranch does, it teaches us about faith, who to put our faith in and who we get our strength from,’' she added.
“I am so thankful for all that I have, and I’ve lost a lot of family throughout my entire life, and I’ve been prepared for a lot of situations, but nothing could have prepared me for this,’' she told AL.com. “It’s hard, because I feel like every time I get close to somebody, they leave, or they get taken away. But this was a wonderful family while I had it.”
The Christian Post reached out to Smith for further comment Monday but he was not immediately available.