A crew member from G&C Towing works to remove the van from Interstate 75 after the vehicle suffered a tire blowout. Fifteen passengers were transported to the hospital / Jack Hardman/news-press.com
(News-Press.com) - A van carrying 16 members of a Lauderhill church crashed on Interstate 75 in Estero Saturday morning, killing one and sending 15 to area hospitals.
The van was from Maranatha French Church in Lauderhill. They were headed to Tampa for a Haitian convention as part of the Florida Conference for Seventh-day Adventists.
Enoch Paulicin, senior pastor of Ambassador Church, which oversees Maranatha French, was in Tampa awaiting the group's arrival. He was planning to travel to Fort Myers late Saturday.
The deceased was identified as Nostra Damas, 20, of North Lauderdale. His Facebook page showed a smiling young man who was a member of Maranatha's youth choir.
The victims, all from the Fort Lauderdale area, ranged in age from two to 62, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
The van was traveling with two other church vans when its left-rear tire tread separated and the driver, Nola Phanor, 45, lost control. The van overturned and ended up on its roof, trapping several passengers. The crash happened north of the Corkscrew Road exit at about 7:30 a.m.
Ten people were transported to Lee Memorial, five with critical injuries, three with serious injuries and two with minor injuries. Damas was pronounced dead at the hospital. Five others with minor injuries were taken to Gulf Coast Medical Center.
The van's youngest passenger, Claudine Aveske, was airlifted to Tampa General Hospital with critical injuries, according to troopers. The victim's conditions were not available late Saturday.
Benjamin Abes, deputy chief with Lee County EMS, said Saturday's crash involved the most patients the agency had seen in recent years.
Nine ambulances were brought to the scene, as well as LeeFlight, the county's new medical emergency helicopter, and Collier County MedFlight. Lee has a total of 41 ambulances in service during the day and 28 at night, Abes said.
"We have an amazing working relationship with our public safety partners," Abes said. "They all come together to make incidents like this run smoothly."
Abes said that they plan for mass casualty events and everyone involved knows what they need to do, but there are things that still come up at the scene that have to be addressed, such as the weather.
It was hot and muggy Saturday morning, and one of the ambulances that responded to the scene was exclusive for rehab and aid for the crews, who were working hard to extricate some of the passengers, Abes said.
The crash closed northbound I-75 for about four hours. Troopers continue to investigate and are working to determine which passengers were wearing seat belts.
Florida law states that only front-seat passengers and those under the age 18 are required to wear seat belts, but children aged three and younger are required to be in a child-restraint seat no matter where seated. The FHP report states that Claudine was not restrained.