BLAKELY, Ga. – An aging church van headed to an out-of-state revival blew a tire on a highway and flipped repeatedly, ejecting all 19 people on board and killing the pastor, his daughter and two others, authorities said Monday.
A woman who survived told investigators that "everybody just flew out of the van," said Early County coroner Todd Hunter.
"She said she remembered rolling, but didn't know if she was rolling inside or outside of the van," Hunter said.
In addition to those who died, 15 passengers were injured in the crash Sunday evening on U.S. 27 south of Blakely, said Gordy Wright, spokesman for the Georgia State Patrol.
The dead included Apostle Ronmyka D. Williams, the 35-year-old pastor of the Tabernacle of Prayer and Deliverance in Columbus, and his 13-year-old daughter, Jasmine Shelly, said the pastor's brother, Michael Williams.
The State Patrol identified the other two killed as 20-year-old Jennifer Walton and 19-year-old Cameron Freeman. All were from Columbus. They named the driver as Kenasha Seldon, 29, from Shiloh, Ga.
Michael Williams said the pastor's wife, Timika Williams, and their infant son, Prince, were among those hospitalized, but their injuries did not appear to be serious. Other church members were hurt badly, he said.
Wright said the passengers ranged in age from 11 months to adults in their 40s. He said all 15 survivors were taken to hospitals, with several being airlifted to hospitals in Tallahassee, Fla., and Dothan, Ala.
Wright said it appears no one in the van was wearing a seat belt.
The 1987 Dodge Ram Wagon van was on a 150-mile drive from Columbus to a revival in Quincy, Fla., when a rear tire blew out, causing the driver to lose control, Wright said. The vehicle hit the median and flipped several times.
No other vehicles were involved.
The van, which is meant to carry 15 passengers, was registered to Williams' Columbus church. A phone listing for the church was disconnected.
Investigators haven't determined how fast the van was traveling. But the stretch of highway where its rear tire blew out has a posted speed limit of 65 mph.
The aging van was likely the best Williams could afford for his small, storefront church, said David Smotherman Jr., a close friend of the pastor since they first met as young church musicians 20 years ago.
"He wouldn't have intentionally put anybody at risk," Smotherman said. "It is a little harder for smaller churches that are trying to get established to have the funds they need."
The pastor started his small church about five years ago with services held in his brother's home. The church has since moved to a storefront in a modest Columbus shopping center, where Michael Williams said it has about 30 members.
Smotherman described Williams as a confident young minister with a magnetic personality. He said he last saw Williams at a church service Saturday night, when the pastor asked Smotherman to pray for his success as he prepared to preach at the Florida revival.
"I spent all last night telling myself it's not real, it's not true," Smotherman said. "When I woke up this morning, it hit hard."