15-vehicle crash in storm-drenched Alabama kills 8 children in youth ranch van

A multi-vehicle crash on an interstate in Alabama left 10 people dead, including nine children, as Tropical Depression Claudette ravaged the area.

The 15-vehicle crash happened Saturday in a curvy area of Interstate 65 "notorious" for hydroplaning as drenching rains pelted the area, according to Butler County Coroner Wayne Garlock. As much as 12 inches of rain was reported earlier from Claudette along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Garlock said one of the vehicles involved in the wreck was a van carrying eight children who were returning to a youth ranch operated by the Alabama Sheriffs Association. They had been spending a week at the beach in Gulf Shores, youth ranches CEO Michael Smith said.

All eight kids were killed in the van, which caught fire after the wreck. The victims ranged from 4 to 17 years old.

The lone survivor is the director of the Tallapoosa County ranch, Candice Gulley. She was pulled from the flames and hospitalized in Montgomery, Smith said, where she was in serious condition. Smith said she was going to survive her physical injuries.

Two of the dead in the van were Gulley's children, ages 4 and 16. Four others were ranch residents and two were guests, Smith said.

"Our hearts are heavy today. Our ranch has suffered great loss," the Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch wrote on social media early Sunday morning

"As some of you may have heard, one of our ranch vehicles was involved in a multiple car accident this afternoon. Please send prayers our way as we navigate this difficult time."

Michael Smith, the youth ranches CEO, said the van was heading back to the ranch near Camp Hill, northeast of Montgomery, after a week at the beach in Gulf Shores. It caught fire after the wreck and Candice Gulley, the ranch director, was the van's only survivor — pulled from the flames by a bystander.

The crash also claimed the lives of two other people who were in a separate vehicle. Garlock identified them as 29-year-old Cody Fox and his 9-month-old daughter, Ariana, both of Marion County, Tennessee.

"He was a great guy and we’re really gonna miss him," said Aaron Sanders, who worked with Fox at the emergency management agency in Marion County. He said Fox also ran a hot tub business with his father and doted on his daughter. "He just loved her to death and that was his life."

Multiple people were also injured.

The National Transportation Safety Board tweeted that it was sending 10 investigators to the area Sunday to investigate the crash, which photos showed included at least four burned vehicles, including two large trucks. It said the inquiry would focus on vehicle technologies such as forward collision warning systems, fuel tank integrity and occupant survivability.

"This is the worst tragedy I've been a part of in my life," said Smith, who was driving Sunday to talk to the remaining residents, who had returned from the beach trip in a separate van and did not see the wreck.

"Words cannot explain what I saw," Smith said of the accident site, which he visited Saturday. "We love these girls like they're our own children."

"Butler County has had one of the most terrible traffic accidents," county Sheriff Danny Bond wrote on Facebook, adding: "I believe is the worst ever in our county."

Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch is one of four youth ranches led by the Christian organization Alabama Sheriffs Youth Ranches that provides a home for abused, neglected or homeless school-age girls. It’s supported by the sheriffs of Lee, Chambers and Tallapoosa counties. Ranchers attend Reeltown School, where they are involved in various extra-curricular activities, according to the group's website

The Butler County Coroner’s Office told FOX News the names of the eight victims will not be released by their agency because those minors were in the custody of the Alabama Department of Human Resources’ Child Protective Services. DHS did not immediately return an email from FOX News seeking comment.

The Tallapoosa County school system said counselors would be available Sunday at a local high school, where some of the ranch residents were students.

Smith said the ranch will likely have a memorial service later. 

A GoFundMe account was set up for Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch to help offset the costs of funeral expenses, medical costs for the injured and counseling for those impacted.

Within hours, more than $17,000 had already been raised. 

RELATED: Claudette moves through coastal states with life-threatening flash flooding

Meanwhile, the storm claimed two other lives in Alabama - a 24-year-old man and a 3-year-old boy. They were killed when a tree fell on their house just outside the Tuscaloosa city limits Saturday, Capt. Marty Sellers of the Tuscaloosa Violent Crimes Unit told The Tuscaloosa News.

The deaths occurred as drenching rains pelted much of northern Alabama and Georgia late Saturday. As much as 12 inches of rain was reported earlier from Claudette along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Earlier on Saturday, a tornado ripped through Alabama and destroyed dozens of homes just north of the Florida border.

Sheriff Heath Jackson in Escambia County said the suspected tornado "pretty much leveled" a mobile home park, toppled trees onto houses and ripped the roof off of a high school gym. 

Tornadoes were also reported in southwest Georgia.

RELATED: Tropical Storm Claudette tornado damages dozens of homes in Alabama

A tropical storm warning was in effect in North Carolina from the Little River Inlet to the town of Duck on the Outer Banks. A tropical storm watch was issued South Santee River, South Carolina, to the Little River Inlet, forecasters said.

Flash flood watches on Sunday were posted for northern Georgia, most of South Carolina, the North Carolina coast and parts of southeast Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.

Top winds remained near 30 mph National Hurricane Center forecasters predicted Claudette would strengthen back to tropical storm status Monday over eastern North Carolina as it went out to sea in the Atlantic Ocean.

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Separately, Tropical Storm Dolores made landfall on Mexico’s west coast with near-hurricane force. As of Sunday morning, it had dissipated over Mexico. Its remnants had maximum sustained winds of 25 mph, and it was centered about 170 miles east of Mazatlan, Mexico.

Heavy rainfall totals up to 15 inches were expected across the southwest and western coastal areas of Mexico throughout the weekend. Forecasters were warning of the potential for flash flooding and mudslides.

This story was reported from Detroit. The Associated Press and FOX News contributed.