MOORE HAVEN, Fla. — An overloaded church van ran through a stop sign, crossed all four lanes of a dark rural highway and nosedived into a canal, killing eight people and injuring 10 early Monday in southwest Florida, authorities said.
“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 van was heading back to a church in Fort Pierce, north of West Palm Beach on the Atlantic coast, after a weekend convention in Fort Myers, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
Eighteen people were in the 15-seat-capacity van when it crashed about 12:30 a.m. March 30, according to the Highway Patrol.
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-to-10 foot embankment and landed in shallow water of the canal, which is lined with tall grass and weeds.
“That’s a very steep embankment, and they kind of did a nosedive,” said Lt. Gregory S. Bueno of the Highway Patrol.
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.
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.
All the people in the van were from Fort Pierce. Outside the Independent Haitian Assembly of God church, about three dozen friends and family members milled around the parking lot waiting for information.
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.
Bueno said that at the time of the crash, it wasn’t foggy at the crash scene in Glades County, west of Lake Okeechobee. There is no lighting on the stretch of road, and the T-intersection is surrounded by farmland.
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 the night of March 30, 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.
By Matt Sedensky. AP writers Kyle Hightower in Fort Pierce and Jennifer Kay and Freida Frisaro in Miami contributed