AUBURN, Alabama (AP) – A director of a girls’ home who drove a van that crashed in Alabama, killing two of her own children, two nephews and four other young people, cried Thursday during a memory where she stated that religious faith supported her from the wreckage.
Standing in front of a crowd of hundreds, Candice Gulley, the only person to survive in the van, wept, saying that each of the young victims was a “blessing to my life”.
“They were my children, whether they shared my blood or not,” Gulley said in his first public comments on the wreck. “To be around these children was to be surrounded by encouragement… They were looking for sad people and they were encouraging them,” she said.
Tears and laughter filled the Highland Church in Auburn for the memorial service, as speakers remembered the eight children. The crowd at the service included young women who had grown up in the girl’s home and law enforcement and rescue workers who responded to the fatal accident.
The van at the youth center for abused or neglected children was part of a violent accident involving multiple vehicles on June 19 on a wet highway that also killed a Tennessee man and his baby in another vehicle. The pile-up was the most devastating blow in a tropical depression that claimed 13 lives in Alabama, causing flash floods and tornadoes that destroyed dozens of homes.
Expressing her thanks for the support she received from across the country in the weeks following the crash, Gulley said she did not have the strength to go through the ordeal on her own.
“I’m not strong. My God is,” she said. “I lost my children here on Earth but they were immediately in the presence of our savior.”
Gulley had taken the group to the Alabama coast on an annual trip sponsored by the Girls’ Ranch, which looks after abused and neglected girls and is located about 100 miles northeast of Montgomery. The van was returning to the Tallapoosa County Girls’ Ranch when it wrecked in a tropical storm last month.
The van was carrying eight children aged 3 to 17 when the crash happened about 55 miles south of Montgomery on Interstate 65.
Eight roses rested in vases in the sanctuary of the church where the public service was held. A program lists the first names of the victims: Bella, Ben, Dana, Haley, Josiah, Makenzie, Nicholas and Tia, and photos of the young people parade on a screen. Scenes of young lives cut short. Wade through a cove. A fishing trip. Ride a horse. Glamorous photos of teenagers in evening dresses.
Speakers shared stories about the kids, including how Gulley’s 3-year-old son Ben stole the hearts of the ranchers and how Gulley’s 16-year-old daughter Bella had a beautiful smile and loved to help others.
Gulley’s nephews Josiah and Nicholas Dunnavant were also killed. Josiah would have turned 13 on Thursday and Nicholas, 8, was the baby of his family and dreamed of having his own dog.
Ranch mentors Eric and Stephanie Strong shared memories of the four teenage girls they looked after at the ranch, including their love of music, cooking experiences gone awry and horseback riding. During the trip to the beach, two of the girls saw a mother struggling in the grocery store and rushed to help, entertain her children and help her with groceries, said Stephanie Strong.
Outside the ward, sheriff’s deputies unleashed eight white doves into the blue sky and an American flag hung from the ladder of a fire truck.
Investigators have not said what happened and no charges have been filed, but a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board could be released soon.
Michael Smith, general manager of Alabama Youth Homes, a Christian company, said that “Satan attacked us” that day when the van got entangled in the huge pile-up as Claudette drove through the southeast, but the mourners will not lose their faith.
“We are here to celebrate the lives of eight young people who are no longer here with us on Earth but we know where they are,” Smith said, struggling at times to remain calm.
“At the end of this day today, I want you to leave here knowing that the legacy of these young people we have lost will live on forever on the Alabama sheriff ranches, helping more d ‘children and youth,’ said Smith. mentionned.