They were church-going Brazilian immigrants who attended a religious conference in Florida this past weekend, but wanted to return to Atlanta early Sunday to make it back for morning service.
So pastor Jose Carmo Jr. led two vans up Interstate 75 in Florida toward Georgia. Both vans ended up crashing in the highway's fog- and smoke-shrouded darkness near Gainesville, Fla. Carmo, his wife and their 15-year-old daughter, Leticia, were among five church members killed in two deadly pileups along the always busy six-lane interstate.
"We couldn't have imagined such tragedy would come to us," said Arao Amazonas, senior pastor at the Igreja Internacional de Restaurcao, or International Church of the Restoration in Atlanta, which caters to the local Brazilian community.
According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Jose Carmo and Adriana, his wife, were Brazilian immigrants who had moved to the United States 12 years ago. They had become immigrant leaders in Atlanta, and left their jobs two years ago to devote themselves to the church.
“They were leading by faith,” Rosana Alves, a family friend, told the newspaper. “They loved the work, the work for God. They loved reaching people and talking about God.”
In all, a total of 10 people were killed in the crash. The accident happened after the Florida Highway Patrol had reopened the interstate after an earlier serious accident. A sergeant and lieutenant determined after about three hours that conditions had cleared enough for drivers, but visibility quickly became murky again, officials said Monday. Florida Gov. Rick Scott has ordered an investigation into that decision.
"We went through the area. We made an assessment. We came to the conclusion that the road was safe to travel and that is when we opened the road up," Highway patrol spokesman Lt. Patrick Riordan said in a news conference. "Drivers have to recognize that the environment changes. They have to be prepared to make good judgments."
The Carmos younger daughter, Lidiane, 15, survived the crash. A hospital spokeswoman said Monday afternoon she was listed in critical condition.
The Carmos were in one van and other church members were in a second van.
About 100 people gathered Monday evening at the suburban Atlanta church to mourn the deaths of their fellow church members. People at the gathering wailed and wept as Amazonas addressed them in Portuguese.
At least a dozen cars, six tractor-trailers and a motorhome collided about 3:45 a.m. Sunday. Some cars were crushed under the bellies of big rigs. Others burst into flames and sent metal shrapnel flying through the air, horrifying witnesses watching the violence along Interstate 75 in calls to 911. Eighteen survivors were hospitalized.
In a 911 recording released Monday, a driver and her passengers told a dispatcher the fog and smoke from the 62-acre brush fire was so thick they couldn't see.
"I think there was another accident behind us because I heard it," a woman said. "Oh my gosh, it's so dark here."
In the same 911 call, another woman took the phone and screamed an expletive as she hears another crash.
"That was a truck. We cannot see. It's like impossible to see," the caller said. "The smoke is very thick you can see obviously only your hand in front. I do hear an ambulance or police officer coming down the road."
Late Monday, the highway patrol said seven people died and at least 16 people were injured after 10 vehicles crashed in the northbound lanes of the highway, the first of two multiple-vehicle pileups along I-75.
Family members and friends of the Carmo family told the AJC they would like to send the family back to Brazil for burials, though it may be cost prohibitive. They are raising funds to cover the costs.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.