A van driven by a sheriff's deputy who ran a group home for adopted and foster children collided with a livestock trailer on Thursday in a highway construction zone, killing five children and injuring seven others.

Howard Mitchell was taking 12 of the children from the home in Kit Carson to Eads at the time of the crash around 7:30 a.m. The school district in Eads, about 15 miles away, said on its website that the Mitchell family had close ties to the community.

The children who died ranged in age from 4 to 17 and lived in the home for adopted and foster children, said Kiowa County Sheriff's office spokesman Chris Sorensen. Seven other children in the van were hospitalized, as well as the driver of the truck.

A photo provided by the Colorado State Patrol showed the front of the van crumpled into the rear of a large livestock trailer. Short skid marks were visible on the patch of U.S. 287 leading to the collision.

The accident happened on a stretch of highway south of Kit Carson that has been under repair for the past month. One lane was closed, and the collision occurred at the back of a line of traffic about 1,000 feet long, said Stacey Stegman, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation.

Sorensen said the normal speed limit on the highway is 65 miles per hour, but speeds were reduced because of the construction zone. Meteorologists said weather conditions in the area at the time were clear, no wind and temperatures in the low 30s.

In Kit Carson, where Mitchell worked as a Cheyenne County sheriff's deputy and also ran the Mitchell House Children's Home, neighbors said they were devastated.

The family are "good people with good hearts," said Annette Weber, manager of the Trading Post restaurant next door to the group home.

Mitchell was a quiet man who spoke little but was respected by the children in his care, Weber said. "He just had a way with kids," she said.

Some of the children from the home worked at the restaurant, she added. "They always came to work, and they always did a good job and they were always more than happy to help us," Weber said.

Kay Piskorski, mother of the Trading Post's owner, said some of the children would come to the restaurant to buy pie for Mitchell and his wife.

"Good kids, all of them," she said. "Things aren't going to be the same. We're going to miss them. It's unbelievable."

Sorensen identified the children who died as Austyn Ackinson, 11; Tony Mitchell, 4; Tayla Mitchell, 10; Andy Dawson, 13, and Jeremy Franks, 17. Weber said Mitchell had adopted Tony and Tayla.

The ages of the hospitalized children were 3, 13, 15, 16, 17 and 17, officials said. The age of one child who suffered minor injuries was not released.

Kit Carson is about 130 miles southeast of Denver. U.S. 287, a mostly two-lane highway, cuts across the sparsely populated eastern plains of Colorado and is popular with truckers on north-south trips through the state.