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After causing 14 deaths, Claudette heads out to sea

Published: Jun. 21, 2021 at 1:08 AM CDT|Updated: Jun. 21, 2021 at 1:32 PM CDT
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CAMP HILL, Ala. (AP) — 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 crash also claimed the lives of two people in another vehicle — a 29-year-old Tennessee man and his 9-month-old daughter. Other people were injured.

Elsewhere, a 24-year-old man and a 3-year-old boy were killed Saturday when a tree fell on their house just outside Tuscaloosa, and a 23-year-old Fort Payne woman died after her car ran off the road into a swollen creek, authorities said.

News outlets reported that search dogs located the body of a man believed to have fallen into the water during flash flooding in Birmingham.

By Monday morning, Claudette had maximum sustained winds of 40 mph (65 kph). The storm was about 90 miles (145 kilometers) south of Ocean City, Maryland, and moving east-northeast at 28 mph (45 kph), the National Hurricane Center said.

The system was expected to pass near or south of Nova Scotia before dissipating late Tuesday.

About 1 to 2 inches (3 to 5 centimeters) of rain was expected in the Carolinas before Claudette moved out to sea.

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.

“Words cannot explain what I saw,” Michael Smith, the youth ranch’s CEO, said of the accident site, which he visited Saturday. He returned from Gulf Shores in a separate van and did not see the crash when it happened.

Pictured Sunday, June 20, 2021, the home owned by Larry and Sally Higgins, was destroyed by...
Pictured Sunday, June 20, 2021, the home owned by Larry and Sally Higgins, was destroyed by heavy flooding in Northport, Ala.(AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

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. Four others were ranch residents and two were guests, Smith said.

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.

Volunteers delivered food Monday at the ranch, on a section of a two-lane county highway lined with wooden fences painted white. Sheriff’s cars and orange traffic barrels blocked the road leading to the area where girls live in homes with their house parents.

Students and community members gathered for a prayer service Sunday at Reeltown High School, the school the girls attended. One of the surviving girls, who was traveling in a separate vehicle, wept as she spoke about her “little sisters,” al.com reported.

“When people hear about the ranch, they usually assume that the girls have done something wrong or bad to get there. But that’s not the case,” said the teen, who was not identified because she is in state custody.

“These girls have been through so much, and they were such strong, wonderful, kind family members, and it was my privilege and my honor to be their big sister,” she said.

She encouraged mourners “to look at somebody and tell them you love them and hold them and squeeze them tight.”

“I will never, ever in my life take life for granted because it is so precious. Love is the biggest thing,” she said.

The coroner said the location of the wreck is “notorious” for hydroplaning, as the northbound highway curves down a hill to a small creek. Traffic on that stretch of I-65 is usually filled with vacationers driving to and from Gulf of Mexico beaches on summer weekends.

The National Transportation Safety Board tweeted that it was sending 10 investigators to the area Sunday.

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Chandler reported from Montgomery. Jeff Amy in Atlanta, Amy Forliti in Minneapolis, Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina, and Julie Walker in New York contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.