The van was carrying nine people — an adult driver and eight children, the oldest 17, the youngest just 3, according to a press release from the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. The children had been at an Alabama Sheriffs Youth Ranch, a retreat for kids from difficult homes or tough neighborhoods whom police officers were trying to look out for. They had made an extra trip to the beach for a fun day.
What happened next was almost too terrible to retell, Joshua McDougald, the Butler County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) director, said.
As the van cruised north on Interstate 65 on Saturday, about a half-hour from Montgomery it sped into a massive wreck that swallowed more than a dozen vehicles across both sides of the freeway. How the van got tangled in the initial accident is not yet clear, McDougald said, but what happened next was.
Two semitrucks crashed into the pileup. Though details remain unknown, McDougald told Coffee or Die Magazine that, based on eyewitness reports of the impact and his own time on the scene, he believed at least one of the semitrucks had been carrying some kind of flammable material.
Just before the trucks crashed, someone ran to the van and pulled the driver free.
“I believe one of the people involved in the wreck had pulled the driver out, and the vehicle caught fire,” McDougald said. The van “went up in flames almost immediately and before they could get back to the vehicle to pull anyone else out.”
The accident’s horrors weren’t confined to the van. In another car, 29-year-old Cody Fox, a firefighter from Tennessee, perished with his 9-month-old daughter, Ariana, in the crash.
Off-duty Tennessee firefighter, infant daughter killed in Alabama 17-vehicle pileup. Cody Fox and his 9-month-old daughter, Ariana, were killed in the fatal crash, and his fiance, Hayle, was critically injured and remains in the hospital. https://t.co/HT32ZwEx6o#news pic.twitter.com/fzWRwH2DIs
— IPSA (@joinipsa) June 22, 2021
While describing the scene to Coffee or Die, McDougald lost his composure and hesitated several times, overcome with emotion.
“Almost all of your southern counties in the state are, you know, we deal with hurricanes every year, so it’s not something that really catches us off guard,” McDougald said. “As far as the wreck — it’s not really something you can ever be prepared for.”
In the 17-car pileup, seven of the vehicles caught fire. Ten people died before first responders could arrive. It was the worst tragedy McDougald has seen in the area, he said.
Nine children and one adult were killed in an accident on Interstate 65 in Butler County, Alabama, on Saturday, according to Butler County Coroner Wayne Garlock. https://t.co/q808gVFxdT pic.twitter.com/wNguGLZAVY
— ABC7 News (@abc7newsbayarea) June 21, 2021
The stretch of I-65 where the pileup occurred is extremely rural but heavily traveled during the summer, McDougald said, and any accident would gridlock traffic. The seven cars that caught fire were right at the emergency turnaround, which blocked responders from reaching cars stuck across the freeway from them, McDougald said.
After the semitrucks crashed, the fire burned so hotly that the only thing left of one of the trucks was the steel frame, McDougald said.
“It was a large wreck, and then I believe it was one of the cargo trucks, like an 18-wheeler box truck, I think had something in it that was flammable,” he said. “I think seven of the vehicles caught fire rather quickly.
“They haven’t completed autopsies for any of the fatalities, and which ones were directly related to the fire, but I believe that is the reason the fatality number was so high — […] the wreck occurred and everybody was pretty much locked in. It occurred at a bridge, and then that fire caught, and I think it was tough for those people to get out.”
McDougald said the first of the first responders on scene had been an Alabama State Patrol officer. Because of the traffic gridlock, several units were late to arrive.
Firefighters and, eventually, the coroner’s office had a difficult time accessing the vehicles because of the number of cars that were smashed together, McDougald said.
“We moved our mobile morgue unit, and it took quite a while to collect the remains of the victims,” McDougald said. “The accident occurred around 2:30 [p.m.], and they didn’t actually start clearing the wreck until, I think, about 9:00 p.m.”
He added that the nature of this incident was a hurdle in and of itself. Seeing any child or baby dead is something no first responder wants, and it can be a career-ender.
“Yeah, this one — this one hit everybody that was involved, given the children that were lost in the accident,” McDougald said. “You try to separate yourself from it, try not to dwell on it, but it’s — it hangs around with you.”