The 12 children who lived in the Mitchell House Children's home would go in and out of the Trading Post store next door so often that manager Annette Weber would think nothing of it.
"One of the kids was in the store this morning, he always bought a Mountain Dew," Weber said Thursday.
Five of the children in the group home, all described by school officials as foster children or adopted children of Howard and Melody Mitchell, died earlier Thursday when their van collided with an empty cattle trailer on a highway construction zone. Howard Mitchell, 57, a sheriff's deputy for Cheyenne County, was driving the van and also died.
Seven other children were injured. Six were transported to hospitals in Denver, while a seventh was treated at a local hospital and released.
"I still can't believe what's happened," Weber said. "I think it's definitely going to affect the community for a long time."
While the Mitchells lived in Kit Carson, the children attended school in Eads, another small farming community about 22 miles south of less than 600 residents. They were on their way there when the accident happened.
"It was absolute shock. Coming from a small town we are family we are all connected to these kids in one form or another," said Eads School Superintendent Glenn Smith, who also serves as the elementary school principal.
Killed in the crash were Austyn Atkinson, 11; Tony Mitchell; Tayla Mitchell, 10; Andy Dawson, 13, and Jeremy Franks, 17. Weber said Mitchell had adopted Tony and Tayla. Tony Mitchell was in the fourth grade and age 10, Smith said. Smith confirmed that Tony and Tayla had been adopted by the Mitchells, and said Andy Dawson was in the process of being adopted.
One of the injured children was also an adopted child.
Smith and Eads High School Principal Betsy Bennett recalled the Mitchells and their care for children as their dedication to "developing citizens."
Smith said the Mitchells preferred to send their foster and adopted children to the school because they seemed to thrive with the staff and programs there.
"The Mitchells cannot be commended enough for their determination and perseverance to have that amount of kids and to haul them miles, after miles to counseling, to appointments, to school every day," Smith said. "Their dedication to developing citizens was unbelievable."
The Colorado State Patrol said the accident remained under investigation, but speed was being looked at as a factor.
A photo provided by the State Patrol showed the front of the van crumpled into the rear of a large livestock trailer. There was about 26 feet of skid marks on the patch of U.S. 287 leading to the collision, Trooper T.A. Ortiz said.
The accident happened on a stretch of highway south of Kit Carson that has been under repair for the past month. One lane was closed, and the collision occurred at the back of a line of traffic about 1,000 feet long, said Stacey Stegman, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Kiowa County Sheriff's office spokesman Chris Sorensen said the normal speed limit on the highway is 65 mmph, but speeds were reduced because of the construction zone. Meteorologists said weather conditions in the area at the time were clear, no wind and temperatures in the low 30s.
Smith recalled Tony and Tayla as "full of energy," and "full of hugs and full of smiles." Both were in the fourth grade.
Smith and Bennett described Andy as full of life, always with a smile on his face. He was an Oklahoma University fan who dreamed of going to school there.
Austyn enjoyed being in school and learning, and had a memorable smile. Both were in middle school and participated in sports, including football, basketball, wrestling and track.
Jeremy, a sophomore, in the high school that has 60 students, was recalled as a bit ornery with a smirk on his face who always tried to push the limits.
"He wanted to kid with you a bit, but he always stayed where he needed to be," Smith said.
Jeremy excelled at football and FFA, two of the activities he participated in at the high school, Bennett said. Last month, when a teammate's mother died, Jeremy worked with teachers and staff to design a card to express condolences. The project was embraced by the students.
"It warmed my heart that he would think of another student that he doesn't really know that well. But he knew that it was a hurtful time for the whole community and he wanted to do something about it," Bennett said. "It was a turning point for him, when he felt like he was a part of our community and our school."
Smith said middle school students are discussing a similar project for the Mitchell family.
In Kit Carson, where Mitchell ran the Mitchell House Children's Home, neighbors said they were devastated.
The ages of the hospitalized children were 3, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 and 17, officials said. The 14-year-old, who suffered minor injuries, was the only one in the van wearing a seat belt, although the 3-year-old was properly restrained in a child seat, troopers said.
Kit Carson is about 130 miles southeast of Denver. U.S. 287, a mostly two-lane highway, cuts across the sparsely populated eastern plains of Colorado and is popular with truckers on north-south trips through the state.
In Cheyenne Wells, people left flowers and photos at a makeshift memorial near the fire station late Thursday.
Associated Press writers Steven K. Paulson and Dan Elliott and freelance photographer Will Powers contributed to this report.
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