Deadly storm Claudette heads out to sea, expected to pass by Nova Scotia Tuesday


Claudette regained tropical storm status and headed out to sea from the North Carolina coast Monday, less than two days after the system killed 14 people in Alabama, including nine children who died in a highway crash.

The system was expected to pass near or south of Nova Scotia before dissipating late Tuesday.

Eight of the children who died Saturday were in a van for a home for abused or neglected children when it erupted in flames in the wreck along a wet Interstate 65 about 55 kilometres south of Montgomery. Butler County Coroner Wayne Garlock said multiple vehicles probably hydroplaned.

The crash also claimed the lives of two people in another vehicle — a 29-year-old Tennessee man and his nine-month-old daughter. Other people were injured.

Elsewhere, a 24-year-old man and a three-year-old boy were killed Saturday when a tree fell on their house just outside Tuscaloosa, and a 23-year-old Fort Payne woman died after her car ran off the road into a swollen creek, authorities said.

News outlets reported that search dogs located the body of a man believed to have fallen into the water during flash flooding in Birmingham.

By Monday morning, Claudette had maximum sustained winds of 65 km/h. The storm was about 145 kilometres south of Ocean City, Maryland, and moving east-northeast at 45 km/h, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

About three to five centimetres of rain was expected in the Carolinas before Claudette moved out to sea.

Flooding caused by Storm Claudette is seen in Raleigh, N.C., June 20, 2021. (Twitter/@the gothickale via REUTERS)

Children killed were on a beach trip

The van in Saturday’s crash was carrying children ages four to 17 who were being cared for at the Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch, a youth home operated by the Alabama Sheriffs Association that takes in abused and neglected children, including foster children.

The van was heading back to the ranch near Camp Hill, northeast of Montgomery, after a week at the beach in Gulf Shores. Ranch Director Candice Gulley was the van’s only survivor — pulled from the flames by a bystander.

“Words cannot explain what I saw,” Michael Smith, the youth ranch’s CEO, said of the accident site, which he visited Saturday. He returned from Gulf Shores in a separate van and did not see the crash when it happened.

Emergency personnel work at the accident site as smoke rises from the wreckage after about 18 vehicles slammed together on a rain-drenched Alabama highway during Tropical Storm Claudette, in Butler County, Ala., U.S., Saturday. (Ricky Scott via REUTERS)

Area notorious for hydroplaning

Gulley remained hospitalized Sunday in Montgomery in serious but stable condition. Two of the dead in the van were her children, ages four and 16. Four others were ranch residents and two were guests, Smith said.

The annual trip to the beach is the highlight of the year at the ranch. It’s a new experience for many of the girls, a worker said. Writing on social media ahead of the trip, the employee said the organization wanted “our girls to be able to enjoy all of the things that regular families get to do on vacation” and later posted a photo of girls standing on the beach under a blue sky looking out at the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Volunteers delivered food Monday at the ranch, on a section of a two-lane county highway lined with wooden fences painted white. Sheriff’s cars and orange traffic barrels blocked the road leading to the area where girls live in homes with their house parents.

Students and community members gathered for a prayer service Sunday at Reeltown High School, the school the girls attended. One of the surviving girls, who was traveling in a separate vehicle, wept as she spoke about her “little sisters,” local news site al.com reported.

“When people hear about the ranch, they usually assume that the girls have done something wrong or bad to get there. But that’s not the case,” said the teen, who was not identified because she is in state custody.

“These girls have been through so much, and they were such strong, wonderful, kind family members, and it was my privilege and my honour to be their big sister,” she said.

The coroner said the location of the wreck is “notorious” for hydroplaning, as the northbound highway curves down a hill to a small creek. Traffic on that stretch of I-65 is usually filled with vacationers driving to and from Gulf of Mexico beaches on summer weekends.

The National Transportation Safety Board tweeted that it was sending 10 investigators to the area Sunday.

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