Eight children travelling in a van from a home for abused or neglected children have been killed in a multi-vehicle crash that also killed a man and his baby in another vehicle as tropical depression Claudette claimed 13 lives in Alabama.
The crash happened on Saturday about 35 miles (55km) south of Montgomery and was likely caused by vehicles hydroplaning in very wet conditions, authorities said.
It was the most devastating blow of a storm that swept across the south-eastern US, causing flash floods and spurring tornadoes that destroyed dozens of homes. As much as 12 inches (30cm) of rain was reported on Saturday along the Mississippi Gulf coast.
The van, carrying children aged four to 17, belonged to the Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch, a youth home operated by the Alabama Sheriffs Association.
Michael Smith, the ranch’s chief executive, said the van was heading back to the home near Camp Hill, north-east of Montgomery, after a week at the beach in Gulf Shores. It caught fire after the wreck and Candice Gulley, the ranch director, was the van’s only survivor after being pulled from the flames by a bystander.
Gulley remained in hospital in Montgomery on Sunday in serious but stable condition. “She’s going to survive her physical injuries,” Smith said. Two of the dead in the van were Gulley’s children, ages four and 16. Four others were ranch residents and two were guests, Smith said.
“This is the worst tragedy I’ve been a part of in my life,” said Smith.
“Words cannot explain what I saw,” Smith said of the accident site, which he visited on Saturday. “We love these girls like they’re our own children.”
The crash also claimed the lives of two other people who were in a separate vehicle. Butler county coroner, Wayne Garlock, identified them as 29-year-old Cody Fox and his nine-month-old daughter, Ariana, both of Marion county, Tennessee.
“He was a great guy and we’re really gonna miss him,” said Aaron Sanders, who worked with Fox at the emergency management agency in Marion County. He said Fox also ran a hot tub business with his father and doted on his daughter. “He just loved her to death and that was his life.” Multiple people were also injured.
The National Transportation Safety Board tweeted that it was sending 10 investigators to the area on Sunday to investigate the crash, photos of which showed at least four burned vehicles, including two large trucks. It said the inquiry would focus on vehicle technologies such as forward collision warning systems, fuel tank integrity and occupant survivability.
A 24-year-old man and a three-year-old boy were also killed when a tree fell on their house just outside Tuscaloosa, Alabama on Saturday, Capt Marty Sellers of the Tuscaloosa violent crimes unit told The Tuscaloosa News.
Heavy rain led to high water late on Saturday into early Sunday in the Birmingham and Tuscaloosa metropolitan areas in Alabama.
WBRC-TV reported that search efforts were also under way for a man believed to have fallen into the water during flash flooding in Birmingham. Crews were using boats to search Pebble Creek.
More than 20 people were rescued by boat due to flooding in Northport, Alabama, WVUA-TV reported. The Tuscaloosa county emergency management agency tweeted that local Red Cross volunteers were on hand to help those who were affected. Birmingham fire and rescue service Capt Bryan Harrell told news outlets that a search was underway for a man who was possibly swept away by flooding.
The rapidly changing conditions came as Claudette moved east-north-east over Georgia and the Carolinas on Sunday.
Flash flood watches were posted Sunday for eastern Georgia, the southern two-thirds of South Carolina and the North Carolina coast. A tropical storm warning was in effect in North Carolina from the Little River Inlet to the town of Duck on the Outer Banks. A tropical storm watch was issued from South Santee River, South Carolina, to the Little River Inlet, forecasters said.
Winds from Claudette remained near 30 mph (45 kmh) on Sunday. National Hurricane Center forecasters predicted it would strengthen back to tropical storm status Monday over eastern North Carolina before heading out to sea in the Atlantic ocean.
Claudette was expected to cross into the Atlantic Ocean on Monday, and regain tropical storm strength over eastern North Carolina.
Claudette was declared organized enough to qualify as a named tropical storm early on Saturday morning, well after the storm’s centre of circulation had come ashore south-west of New Orleans.
Shortly after landfall, a suspected tornado spurred by the storm demolished or badly damaged at least 50 homes in a small town in Alabama, just north of the Florida border.
Sheriff Heath Jackson in Escambia county said a suspected tornado “pretty much leveled” a mobile home park, toppled trees onto houses and ripped the roof off of a high school gym. Most of the damage was done in or near the towns of Brewton and East Brewton, about 48 miles (77km) north of Pensacola, Florida.
There were no immediate reports of serious injuries or deaths.
Damage from the storm was also felt in north Florida, where winds in some cases reaching 85 mph (137kph) caused an 18-wheeler to flip on its side.
The storm also dumped flooding rains north of Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana and along the Mississippi coast, inundating streets and, in some areas, pushing water into homes. Later, the storm was drenching the Florida Panhandle and, well inland, a broad expanse of Alabama.