Federal traffic investigators said Thursday that unsafe driving speeds of multiple vehicles on wet roads in low visibility was the probable cause of a fiery 2021 interstate crash in Alabama that killed nine children and one adult.
The National Transportation Safety Board released a report about the June 19, 2021 crash that involved 10 passenger vehicles and two commercial trucks on Interstate 65. The report described a horrific chain of events as the trucks and an SUV slammed into cars that had slowed because of minor crashes on the rain-slick highway. But it did not assign blame or cause beyond unsafe driving speeds for road conditions.
“Driving at speeds above the speed limit or too fast for conditions can have serious consequences, including a loss of vehicle control, increased crash severity, and more severe injuries,” investigators wrote in their conclusion. Investigators wrote that that the probable cause of the crash was the “unsafe speeds of multiple vehicles during rain, low visibility, and wet road conditions.”
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A post crash fire — likely started after a fuel tank on one of the commercial vehicles ruptured during the crash — consumed six vehicles and contributed to the fatal injuries of the eight children in a transit van, investigators said.
The crash happened after the remnants of a tropical depression had crossed the state. Light rain was falling at the time of the crash and watery spray was reducing visibility for drivers, the report said. The Alabama Department of Transportation had previously identified an increase in the percentage of motor vehicle crashes and had planned a paving project at the location, the report stated.
The van was from a group home for abused or neglected children and was returning from a beach trip. The van was in a queue of cars that had slowed or stopped because of earlier crashes, when a chain reaction occurred as three “striking vehicles” — identified as a Freightliner truck, an auto-transporter and a Ford Explorer — “came upon the traffic queue and struck vehicles in the queue.”
The Ford Explorer hit an Acura in the queue at an estimated speed 27–30 mph, pushing the cars ahead into one another. The Volvo auto-transporter then hit the Ford SUV at an estimated speed of about 51 mph and also made contact with other cars. The Freightliner truck, which had been behind the auto-transporter, braked and struck the van “as it traveled through the median and forced the van into the Volvo auto-transporter.”
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Many of the data recorders were destroyed in the fire, making it difficult to know the speed of the vehicles. The report did not give the Freightliner’s estimated speed but said the driver estimated that he had been traveling at 60 mph before braking. The Ford Explorer had been traveling at 81.5 mph five seconds before impact.
A fire then engulfed the van and five other vehicles that came had come to rest in the median. The exact cause of the fire couldn’t be determined because of the extent of the damage but was likely fueled by a ruptured gas tank on one of the commercial trucks.
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The eight children in the van died from thermal and blunt-force trauma injuries, and autopsy reports indicated all had inhaled soot before they died. The driver of the van, the director of the girl’s home for abused or neglected children, was the only survivor in the vehicle. Two of her own children, her two nephews and four girls from the home were killed.
A Tennessee man and his baby, who were passengers in the Ford Explorer, also were killed.