At least eight people died and 10 others were injured early Monday when a church van from Fort Pierce ran through a stop sign, crossed all lanes of U.S. 27 and landed in a canal in southwest Florida, the Florida Highway Patrol said.
There were 18 people in the van, Lt. Gregory S. Bueno said. The driver and seven passengers are confirmed dead. Bueno said it was not foggy in the area when the crash occurred.
The crash happened around 12:30 a.m. in Glades County at an intersection. Glades County is east of Lake Okeechobee.
"They didn't see that stop sign. They shot right through it," Glades County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Duane Pottorff said. "It was a sad evening."
The group was returning home from the Eglise De Dieu La Jerusalem Celeste church in Fort Myers to the Independent Haitian Assembly of God in Fort Pierce, according to friends and family at the accident scene, Fox 4 reports.
“It’s heartbreaking” Dina Sarver, a friend of those in the van, told WINK. “Because it is so many of us. You know there are people there at the church waiting, we’re two hours away, it was supposed to be a simple go, have fun, come back. It just didn’t turn out to be like that.”
The crash killed the male driver and seven passengers, four male and three female, troopers said. Their names were not released pending notification of their families.
Nicholas Alexis sat near three men who died during the accident. Alexis said he kicked out a window to escape.
"I just know there is a God," said Alexis, sitting in a chair dragged outside the Independent Haitian Assembly of God to ease the pain in his bandaged leg and fractured ribs.
A 911 call came in at 12:31 a.m., and deputies arrived four minutes later, officials said. The van had gone down an 8 foot to 10 foot embankment and landed in shallow water of the canal, which is lined with tall grass and weeds. Later in the morning, the van -- with "Independent Haitian Church of Reformation" written on its side -- had been loaded onto the back of a flatbed truck. The front of the van was smashed in, and the door had been removed.
Friends and family say one of the passengers was able to crawl out of the wreckage and call for help, Fox 4 reports.
The Florida Highway Patrol identified 10 other passengers taken to four hospitals. Among them was a 4-year-old child -- who was not in a car seat, Bueno said -- in serious condition. Four other adults were in critical condition.
Phillipe Dorce, 34, said his father-in-law and cousin were on the van. Dorce received a call about 1:15 a.m. and drove to the crash site. He said he helped authorities identify bodies. "I was there trying to be a man. But at the same time, I'm crying too," he said.
Church pastor Esperant Lexine, 57, was injured in the crash, said his daughter, Dina Lexine Sarver, 23. In a phone interview with The Associated Press from Tampa General Hospital, Sarver said that he had suffered internal bleeding and that she had been able to speak with him briefly.
Nozaire Nore, 48, suffered a broken leg in the crash. With his niece translating from Haitian Creole, Nore told Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers that the driver didn't notice a curve in the road and couldn't stop in time.
Nore said he is a migrant farm laborer who travels to New Jersey and New York to pick apples, watermelons and other crops.
The Highway Patrol spoke briefly spoke to some survivors and will conduct more in-depth interviews, Bueno said. A full investigation will assess any mechanical issues with the van, he added.
On Monday morning, the van had been loaded onto the back of a flatbed truck. The front of the van was smashed in, and the door had been removed.
Under Florida law, a Class C commercial driver's license is required to drive any vehicle designed to transport 16 or more people, including the driver. The driver's name in the crash had not been released.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.