Claudette regains tropical storm strength after 13 deaths

Published 1:15 pm Monday, June 21, 2021

ATLANTA (AP) — Claudette regained tropical storm status as it neared the coast of the Carolinas on Monday, less than two days after the system killed 13 people in Alabama, including eight children who died in a highway crash.

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 35 miles (55 kilometers) 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 9-month-old daughter. Other people were injured.

Elsewhere, a 24-year-old man and a 3-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.

A search was underway for a man believed to have fallen into the water during flash flooding in Birmingham. Television station WBRC reported that crews were using boats to search Pebble Creek.

By Monday morning, Claudette had maximum sustained winds of 40 mph (65 kph). The storm was 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Norfolk, Virginia, and moving east-northeast at 28 mph (45 kph), the National Hurricane Center said.

The system was expected to move into the Atlantic Ocean later in the morning, then pass near or south of Nova Scotia on Tuesday.
A tropical storm warning was in effect from Cape Fear, North Carolina, to the town of Duck on the Outer Banks.

About 1 to 2 inches (3 to 5 centimeters) of rain was expected in the Carolinas before Claudette moves out to sea, with isolated flash flooding possible.

The van in Saturday’s crash was carrying children ages 4 to 17 who were being cared for at the Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch, a youth home operated by the Alabama Sheriffs Association.

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.

Gulley remained hospitalized Sunday in Montgomery in serious but stable condition. Two of the dead in the van were her children, ages 4 and 16. Four others were ranch residents and two were guests, Smith 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.