WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Federal transportation officials are investigating a crash that killed eight members of a Florida church who were riding in a type of van that has raised safety alarms for many years.
It's unknown what caused the overloaded 15-passenger van to plunge into a ravine on a dark stretch of rural roadway Monday, but the tragedy is giving fresh exposure to repeated warnings about the vehicles popular with budget-minded houses of worship, schools and other nonprofits.
Probes into the accident in Glades County are underway by the Florida Highway Patrol as well as the National Transportation Safety Board, which sent two investigators to the scene.
Peter Knudson, an NTSB spokesman, said investigators will look at whether the unlit T-intersection set amid farmland had a history of accidents, whether the van's safety features worked as they should have, the 18 occupants' use of seatbelts and any factors affecting the driver.
The driver, 58-year-old Volsaint Marsaille, was among those killed in the crash. He was a longtime St. Lucie County school bus driver with a good record who had driven for the Independent Haitian Assembly of God for many years, his son-in-law Philippe Dorce said.
The pastor of the Fort Pierce church was among 10 survivors rushed to hospitals after the accident. By Friday four had been released, and the Rev. Esperant Lexine and five others remained hospitalized, Lexine's daughter said.
The church is seeking donations to pay for funerals for the dead, said Dina Lexine Sarver, the pastor's daughter.
Newspaper clips are full of stories of crashes similar to the one near the sugar fields of Moore Haven, and many included blown tires and overturned vans. Those factors were not at play in Monday's crash of a 2000 Dodge Ram wagon, but watchdogs say the crash that followed a missed stopped sign illustrates how such vans are hard to control in an emergency.
"Some insurance companies refuse to insure them because it's so dangerous," said Joan Claybrook, who headed the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration under President Jimmy Carter and is a past president of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. Though Marsaille went through a stop sign and his vehicle had too many people on board, Claybrook said such vans have inherent safety issues that make them more prone to tragedy.
Claybrook and other safety advocates have pointed to numerous issues in the vans that make them more susceptible to fatal accidents, from the height and width of the vehicles, to the structural integrity of seats and seatbelt availability and quality. Older models are particularly maligned, lacking stability controls and tire pressure monitoring features of newer vans.
Federal transportation officials have warned about the potential instability of 15-passenger vans for over a decade. The NHTSA has warned colleges and church groups, among others, that overloading the vans increases the risk of rollover and makes the vehicles difficult to maneuver in emergencies. Officials also urge all occupants in the vans to wear seatbelts and all owners to check the tire pressure for every trip.
Some 521 people died in crashes involving 15-passenger vans from 2004 through 2010, according to federal statistics.
Kay reported from Miami. Associated Press writer Kyle Hightower in Orlando, Florida, also contributed to this report.