AUBURN, Ala.—A girls home director who was driving a van that crashed in Alabama, killing two of her own children, two nephews, and four other youths, wept Thursday at a remembrance where she said religious faith has sustained her since the wreck.
Standing before a crowd of hundreds, Candice Gulley, the only person to survive in the van, cried as she said each of the young victims was a “blessing to my life.”
“They were my children whether they shared my blood or they didn’t,” Gulley said in her first public comments about the wreck.
Expressing thanks for support she’s received from across the country in the weeks since the fiery pileup, Gulley said she did not have the strength to get through the ordeal on her own.
“I’m not strong. My God is,” she said. Again referring to God, Gulley said those who were killed “are worshiping him face-to-face.”
Gulley had taken the group to the Alabama coast for an annual trip sponsored by the girls’ ranch, which cares for abused and neglected girls and is located about 60 miles northeast of Montgomery. The van was returning to the Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch after a week at the beach when it wrecked during a tropical storm last month.
The van was carrying eight children ages 3 to 17 when the crash occurred about 35 miles south of Montgomery on Interstate 65. A Tennessee man and his young daughter died in another vehicle.
Eight roses sat in vases in the church sanctuary where the public service was held. A program listed the first names of the victims: Bella, Ben, Dana, Haley, Josiah, Makenzie, Nicholas, and Tia, and photos of the young people flashed on a screen. Scenes from young lives cut short. Wading in a creek. A fishing trip. Riding horses. Teen glam photos in formal dresses.
Speakers shared stories about the children, including how Gulley’s 3-year-old son, Ben, stole the hearts of those at the ranch and how Gulley’s 16-year-old daughter, Bella, had a beautiful smile and loved to help others.
Ranch mentors Eric and Stephanie Strong shared memories of the girls, including their love of music, kitchen experiments gone awry, and riding horses. During the beach trip, two of the girls saw a mother struggling in the grocery store, and rushed to help, entertaining her children and helping her load her groceries, Stephanie Strong said.
Outside, sheriff’s deputies released eight white doves into the blue sky, and a U.S. flag hung from a fire truck’s ladder. The crowd at the service included young women who had grown up at the ranch and the law enforcement officers and rescue workers who responded to the crash.
Michael Smith, chief executive of the Christian-based Alabama Youth Homes, said “Satan took a swing” when the van became entangled in the massive pileup on June 19 as Claudette blew through the Southeast, but mourners won’t lose faith.
“We’re here to celebrate the lives of eight young people that are no longer here with us on Earth,” said Smith, struggling to stay composed at times. “But we know where they are.”
Investigators have not said what happened and no charges were filed, but a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board could be released soon.
By Kim Chandler