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Camp Hill, Alabama - 21 June 2021
1. Various of flowers placed at sign for Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch
2. SOUNDBITE (English) Michael Smith, Chief executive of Alabama Youth Homes:
"I know that we lost eight of our children. That's what I know."
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3. SOUNDBITE (English) Michael Smith, Chief executive of Alabama Youth Homes:
"They were on their way back – our lead van, which was a few miles in front of the other the other van and the chase car, had nine passengers, and when they got in between Fort Deposit in Greenville, they were involved in a horrific accident. We had nine passengers. We had eight fatalities and one survivor."
4. Flag at half-mast on ranch grounds
5. SOUNDBITE (English) Michael Smith, Chief executive of Alabama Youth Homes:
"We're in a state of grief right now, and there's a lot of healing that needs to be done. You know, in the Bible it says that God won't put anything on us that we can't handle, and we've questioned that quite a bit these past few days. But God's got big shoulders and, and we know that our only way to get through the grief that we have right now is with prayer."
Claudette regained tropical storm status and headed out to sea from the North Carolina coast Monday, less than two days after the system killed 14 people in Alabama, including nine children who died in a highway crash.
Eight of the children who died Saturday were in a van for a home for abused or neglected children when it erupted in flames in the wreck along a wet Interstate 65 about 35 miles (55 kilometers) south of Montgomery. Butler County Coroner Wayne Garlock said multiple vehicles probably hydroplaned.
The van in Saturday's crash was carrying children ages 4 to 17 who were being cared for at the Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch, a youth home operated by the Alabama Sheriffs Association that takes in abused and neglected children, including foster children.
The van was heading back to the ranch near Camp Hill, northeast of Montgomery, after a week at the beach in Gulf Shores. Ranch Director Candice Gulley was the van's only survivor — pulled from the flames by a bystander.
"We're in a state of grief right now, and there's a lot of healing that needs to be done," said Michael Smith, the youth ranch's CEO. "In the Bible it says that God won't put anything on us that we can't handle, and we've questioned that quite a bit these past few days. But God's got big shoulders and we know that our only way to get through the grief that we have right now is with prayer."
Smith returned from Gulf Shores in a separate van and did not see the crash when it happened.
Gulley remained hospitalized Sunday in Montgomery in serious but stable condition. Two of the dead in the van were her children, ages 4 and 16.
Smith said four others were ranch residents and two were guests.
The annual trip to the beach is the highlight of the year at the ranch. It's a new experience for many of the girls, a worker said.
Writing on social media ahead of the trip, the employee said the organization wanted "our girls to be able to enjoy all of the things that regular families get to do on vacation" and later posted a photo of girls standing on the beach under a blue sky looking out at the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Students and community members gathered for a prayer service Sunday at Reeltown High School, the school the girls attended.