Eight children killed in a 17-car pileup on a slick Alabama highway a month ago were celebrated Thursday by hundreds of mourners who lined the pews of a megachurch and watched doves released into the open sky.
The tragic loss of so many young lives — including several teen girls who had been placed by local child welfare authorities in a Christian youth ranch — inspired GoFundMe donations totaling more than $500,000. Substantial sums were also sent directly to the faith-based service organization that housed them, its CEO said.
The lost teens who had lived at the rural Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch — Dana, Haley, Makenzie and Tia — were identified at the public celebration of life Thursday by their first names only. The ranch and the Alabama Department of Human Resources both declined to release the full names of the three girls who were in foster care, but two have been fully identified in online memorials.
The other four children killed in the inferno were close relatives of ranch director Candice Gulley, the sole survivor of the June 19 crash: They were Gulley’s son Ben, 3; her daughter Isabella, 16; and her two nephews, 12-year-old Josiah and 8-year-old Nicholas.
At Thursday’s memorial, a slideshow projected images of the eight children reveling in the weeklong beach vacation they shared before the tragic crash ended their lives on Interstate 65. In other photos, they worked the grounds of the rural youth ranches, fished and played together.
Tearful and clasping tissues, Gulley met thundering applause from the roughly 700 people gathered at the Church of the Highlands in Auburn, 50 miles outside of Montgomery. She described all of the deceased as “my children,” adding: “whether they shared my blood or they didn’t, they were still my children.”
“To be around these kids was to be around encouragers,” Gulley said. “They sought out people that were sad, and they encouraged them. They were a blessing to my life.”
With scripture from 2nd Timothy 4:7 on the screen behind him, Alabama Sheriffs Youth Ranch CEO Michael Smith acknowledged the thousands of people across the country who had sent donations. Smith said Alabama’s Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R) had called to offer his condolences and the U.S. Senate held a moment of silence for the crash victims.
“America has embraced these ranchers,” Smith said, introducing the ceremony. “Please listen to the stories of these young people today, and when people talk about them, just know how much they meant to us on the ranch.”
Among the deceased, four were teenage residents of the Girls’ Ranch, including three foster youth in the custody of the Alabama State Department of Human Resources. The fourth — like most residents of the deeply religious residential Christian youth program — came to the ranch through a private placement.
Haley Marie Logan, a 15-year-old brunette with a heart-shaped face, began living in foster and group homes as a child, often winning fans among those who cared for her over the years. On a publicly available obituary page, former caregivers and friends described a girl who cheered people up and let them know she cared. According to her obituary, Haley is survived by two sisters, two brothers, parents and a grandmother, as well as many aunts, uncles and cousins.
“She loved little children and animals, a big personality and laugh, a huge imagination,” wrote Ruth Neuhoff, a former house parent at the Girls Ranch.
At the memorial, Neuhoff remembered Haley as a creative and energetic girl who loved projects, from cooking to fixing up bikes. She described Haley’s love for Jesus deepening and growing during her time at the ranch.
Fourteen-year-old Tia, who was also in foster care, leaves behind a younger sister and brother, who she loved so much she listed their birthdays beside hers on her Instagram profile. Her posts were full of photos and video compilations of the many friends she called her “besties.”
Her social media posts also chronicled the sadness that came with frequently moving between different homes and parts of the state. In one video from 2018, she reminisced over an old class picture from her elementary school on the Georgia border, lamenting that she’d had to move hours away to Tuscaloosa, where she lived in a foster home — before moving again, this time to the youth ranch. In a 2019 post, she worried about having to go to court, asking friends to pray for her.
Stephanie Strong, who was the house mother to all four residents killed in the crash, remembered how Tia often got in trouble, but always had a “humble, repentant heart.”
She read the crowd of mourners an apology note that Tia had written to her once after being punished for lying.
“I really am thankful for my consequences,” the young teen wrote. “I really love you, mama. I need help with the devil on my shoulder.”
Both Tia and Haley were baptized at the ranch, said Eric Strong, the girls’ other house parent, at the memorial. His wife also recalled how, during a grocery stop on the beach trip, Tia and Haley noticed a mother struggling to manage her children in a checkout line. The girls immediately went over to entertain the kids, help the mother load her groceries, and pray with her, he said.
Stephanie Strong also shared her memories of foster youth Makenzie. The 16-year-old was sweet and encouraging to the other girls, she said, leaving them notes and making time to help them with their hair and makeup before special occasions.
“She wanted them to feel beautiful and special,” Strong recalled. “She was very forgiving and merciful to her sisters — she always tried to be positive, even in difficult situations.”
Makenzie “loved her mom and sister dearly,” according to the program distributed at the memorial.
The teen was especially close with her 17-year-old roommate, Dana Marie Norman, who, like most of the other girls at the ranch, had been placed there by her family rather than by the foster care system. Dana was both strong and gentle: A taekwondo red belt who often graced her family and friends with her singing, accompanying herself on the guitar.
Adopted at age 9, Dana is survived by seven siblings in her adoptive and biological families. In her publicly available obituary, her family describes their daughter’s struggles with depression, as well as her bold and big-hearted nature.
“She would be the first to volunteer help. She loved adventures,” the obituary reads. “Fear did not know Dana or maybe fear was afraid of her.”
The week before the crash was any kid’s dream: a vacation to Alabama’s white-sand beaches. For some, Smith said, the beach trip was a first.
But as they packed up the ranch’s two vans to head back home, Tropical Storm Claudette was quickly barrelling in over the Gulf. Although the morning’s heavy rains were letting up by afternoon, the highways leading north were still slick. About halfway home, just after 2:30 p.m., the first of the two vans was caught in a horrific 17-vehicle pileup on a low bridge over a small creek, a spot the county coroner told the AP was “notorious” for hydroplaning.
Seven vehicles quickly caught fire, including the ranch van. The speed and intensity of the blaze prevented bystanders from rescuing the children inside, and all eight died at the scene. The only person pulled free of the wreck was the driver, Gulley, who had been knocked unconscious. She suffered a head injury and broken ribs, and was hospitalized in serious but stable condition.
In a different SUV involved in the crash, two members of a Tennessee family were also killed: Cody Fox, a 29-year-old emergency management worker, and his 9-month-old daughter Ariana Carlene Morgan-Fox.
The ranch van, a late-model Ford 15-passenger van, was the newest in the ranch’s fleet, and had recently gotten new tires and brakes, CEO Smith told The Imprint.
The National Transportation Safety Board is conducting a full investigation, which could take more than a year, though a preliminary report is expected to be released soon.
Sean Kane, the president of Safety Research & Strategies, a Massachusetts-based firm specializing in vehicle and product safety research, said investigators are likely to explore the possibility of a fuel tank rupture, which could have occurred on one of the larger vehicles or trucks involved in the crash.
The second van from the ranch carrying the rest of the beach-goers was saved by the decision to stop for lunch at a Cracker Barrel a few miles earlier. The girls and staff in that van didn’t learn the devastating news about their friends until later that night, according to local media reports.
At an impromptu vigil at Reeltown High School the day after the accident, one of the girls from the second van spoke about the friends she lost — her sisters, as she calls them.
“I’ve lost a lot of family throughout my entire life, and I’ve been prepared for a lot of situations, but nothing could have prepared me for this,’’ the teen said, in a local media account. “It’s hard, because I feel like every time I get close to somebody, they leave, or they get taken away. But this was a wonderful family while I had it.”
“We’ve already been through so much,” she continued. “All these girls have been through so much, that’s why we’re here at the ranch.”
For five decades, the ranches run by the private Alabama Sheriffs Youth Ranch nonprofit have taken in local children from families struggling with their kids’ behaviors, as well as a smaller number of children and teens from the foster care system. The website for the ranches describes them as providing structure and spiritual guidance to help young people “grow spiritually and physically into productive, responsible, and happy adults.” The organization describes its work as having “raised” more than 5,000 children since taking in its first two boys in 1966.
While the ranch takes in government funds to care for the foster youth to live there, Smith said 90% of their revenue comes from private donors allowing the ranches to accept children even if their families can’t pay. The organization brought in more than $3.3 million in revenue last year.
The nonprofit supported by a private association of sheriffs currently operates three ranches, with a fourth slated to open next year. Each is dotted with family homes that typically house five to seven children, overseen by a pair of house parents — some residents even refer to them as mom and dad. Additional respite parents live on site, rotating between the children’s homes and giving house parents a few days off. The ranches also employ licensed social workers who work with the youth and communicate with their families and the child welfare agency.
CEO Smith said the generosity of the ranch’s supporters has peaked in response to the recent tragedy. A GoFundMe page soliciting funds for “funeral-related expenses, medical costs for the injured and counseling” quickly raised $545,642. Other donations have flooded into the organization’s mailbox and through its website, and several young girls even donated their earnings from lemonade stands and bracelet sales.
Smith said the donations will also help the nonprofit recover financially — it had to cancel three fundraisers in the tragedy’s wake — and bolster its efforts to grow its ministry. Last year, Smith began working to reopen a long-dormant fourth youth ranch that required extensive renovation but said he will not use any of the money raised from the GoFundMe to fund that project.
“With all the national recognition and things just happening, it’s a chance for us to make our ministry the best and biggest it’s ever been,” Smith said. “To help more needy and children in crisis in Alabama to help them to live in good Christian family homes.”
Tia, Hayley, Dana and Makenzie lived at the Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch, which has been open since 1973. The rural campus is the largest of the sheriffs’ ranches, with five homes, a chapel, gym, swimming pool and duck pond. The residents attend school in nearby Reeltown, a community of fewer than 300 residents.
In contrast with a national push to limit the use of group homes and residential treatment centers other than for short-term therapeutic reasons, the Alabama youth ranches are designed for lengthy, years-long stays. Some youth choose to remain at the ranch until the age of 21, which is allowed as long as they are in trade school or college and maintain a C average. One young man has called one of the organization’s other ranches home for 11 years, Smith said.
Though they strive to serve young people struggling with the trauma of childhood abuse or neglect, the ranches are not intended to be therapeutic settings, he added; the model relies on structure and a strict adherence to Christian family values. The children pray with their house parents every morning and attend local churches twice weekly.
“Whether it’s troubled children, whether it’s a crisis, or just needy children,” Smith said, “you bring them into a Christian loving home, and that teaches them the right morality about everything.”
Freelance reporter Jacob Powell reported for The Imprint live from Auburn, Alabama.