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7 kids die in fiery crash

On a rural road in North Florida, a semitrailer truck smashes a car filled with children into a school bus.

Published January 26, 2006

[AP photo]
Investigators examine the school bus involved in Wednesday's accident. Six students on the bus were taken to hospitals, three with serious injuries.

LAKE BUTLER - Seven children were killed in a fiery crash Wednesday when a semitrailer truck failed to stop and slammed into the back of their Pontiac on a rural road near this North Florida town.

The collision pushed the Pontiac into a school bus, causing a fireball that virtually disintegrated the car. The school bus driver and at least six children were taken to hospitals.

The dead ranged from 20 months to 15 years old and lived about a mile away. It appeared they were in the car without an adult.

Hours later, amid the charred wreckage, investigators still were trying to determine who was driving the Pontiac, how the victims were related and what caused the wreck.

"It's a very chaotic scene," Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Mike Burroughs said. "It's just a mangled, charred mess."

School bus No. 13 was traveling north on a rural stretch of State Road 121 about 3 miles south of Lake Butler. Some of the nine students onboard were dropped off at a stop just after 3 p.m.

The driver had activated lights signaling other drivers to stop, FHP officials said.

The Pontiac stopped behind the bus. It was not clear who was driving, though 15-year-olds can obtain a special permit but must have an adult onboard.

Investigators did not know why the truck driver failed to stop. FHP spokesman Bill Leeper said the truck was going a "bit too fast" in the 60 mph zone. The stretch of road was dry, flat and straight.

The impact of the truck smashing into the green Pontiac Bonneville caused the car to burst into flames, burning the occupants. It wound up in woods along the side of the road.

The cab of the truck detached from the frame, overturned and caught fire. The driver, 31-year-old Alvin Wilkerson of Jacksonville, was taken to a hospital with minor injuries.

The bus, carrying middle and elementary school students, was pushed 200 feet down the road.

Union County Sheriff Jerry Whitehead called the crash the worst he had ever seen.

"It was a bad scene, a horrible scene," he said.

Whitehead was not surprised that a 15-year-old was illegally driving the Pontiac.

"I wouldn't say it's common," he said. "But a lot of kids in rural areas learn to drive pretty quickly."

Joyce Clemons, 53, who lives near the accident scene, heard a "horrendous crash" and rushed outside.

The woods on the side of the road appeared to be on fire, she said. She did not see the Pontiac. It was too badly burned to make out that it was a car, she said.

Clemons saw bodies in the road, including the driver of the bus. She asked the driver how many kids were onboard and then ran over to check them out.

"There was a little girl hanging out the back window," she said. "I told her to just be still. Help was on the way. She was in a daze."

Eddie Jackson, 41, a truck driver from Lake City, said he came upon the accident right after it happened. He said he saw injured children in the road, including one girl with bone exposed on a knee.

Dozens of FHP troopers, sheriff's deputies and emergency workers descended on the scene. The road, a main artery through sparsely population Union County, remained closed Wednesday night.

The FHP identified the dead as two sisters, Ashley Keen, 14, and Miranda Finn, 10; and five other children who are believed to be related, Cynthia Nicole Mann, 15, Elizabeth Mann, 15, Heaven Mann, 13, Johnny Mann, 13, and Anthony Lamb, 20 months.

The FHP said the mother of the Mann children is Barbara Mann, and that all seven children live in the same house.

A preliminary investigation did not find skid marks or any indication that the truck driver tried to stop before hitting the Pontiac, Burroughs said.

"We can't speculate on anything at this point," Burroughs said. Troopers will look into whether speed or any truck malfunction contributed to the crash.

Ralph Ives, a Shands at the University of Florida hospital spokesman, said eight patients were transported to the hospitals after the accident.

Seven of the eight were children, ages 5 to 16. Five were at Shands on Wednesday evening. Two of those were in critical condition and three were in serious condition, he said.

Officials said the bus driver, Lillie Mae Perry, was thrown from the vehicle and was taken to a hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.

Burroughs said the truck was owned by the Crete Carrier Corp. Troopers were trying to contact the business.

The National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending a team of investigators.

About 10 people a year die as a result of crashes while riding on school buses, making school buses one of the safest forms of transportation, according to a U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study in 2002.

Times new researchers Caryn Baird and Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press and the Gainesville Sun.

[Last modified January 26, 2006, 01:02:16]

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