‘We relive it every day’: One year since I-65 crash claimed 10 lives

Published: Jun. 19, 2022 at 6:51 PM CDT
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - On June 19, 2021, a tragic multi-vehicle crash on I-65 in Butler County claimed the lives of 10 people, including nine children.

Eight of the children killed were affiliated with the Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch, a nonprofit organization that provides a home for neglected or abused school-aged children.

It’s been one year since the wreck, and a lot has changed at the ranch. Michael Smith, CEO of Alabama Sheriffs Youth Ranches, sat down with WSFA 12 News on the one year anniversary of the crash.

“We relive it every day,” Smith said. “The good thing about it is we have the happy thoughts that we think about those young people every day. It’s a healing process and it will never end.”

Smith describes the scene that day as a war zone. He remembers a state trooper delivering the news.

“He grabbed me with a tear running down his eye and said “Mr. Smith, there’s eight fatalities in your van, and I was within 100 feet of the van and couldn’t recognize it,’” Smith said.

Ranch Director Candice Gulley was driving the van back from a beach vacation in Gulf Shores. Candice’s nephews Nicholas and Josiah along with her own children Bella and Ben were on board. Dana, Haley, Makenzie and Tia were ranchers.

“People on the scene at the accident were able to get Candice out of the van and they were going back for some of the children, the young people, when the explosion happened,” Smith said.

Candice spent days in the hospital recovering from her injuries and eventually returned to the ranch.

“There is no getting over it, it’s only healing and believing that you’ll see your child again one day,” Smith said. “As time goes on you think of more of the good, then you think about driving up on that accident.”

The wreck caught the interest of the world, as thousands reached out in support of the ranch.

“We know that those children’s lives made a different in the ranches too because people know about us all over the country and the world now and what a great job we’re doing with young people,” Smith said.

The ranch has collected over half a million dollars on GoFundMe in donations, money Michael says will help further their mission to provide a loving Christian home for children in need.

With that funding, they have been able to re-open a ranch for boys in St. Clair County.

“Next week, we’ll be taking the first three young men at the St. Clair County ranch, that will be their home,” Smith said.

Smith said since June of last year, six children at the ranches have graduated high school and 13 have been baptized.

“To have 13 people give their life to god in one year, that’s pretty amazing,” Smith said. “That’s the reason we get up.”

He said it’s their faith in God they look to for strength one year later.

“The fortunate thing for us in our hearts that we know is that all eight of those children loved God and so we know that they’re in heaven and we do get to see them again one day,” Smith said.

If you would like to support the ranch, there will be a charity golf tournament held on August 9 at Robert Trent Jones-Grand National in Opelika, in honor of the eight young lives lost.

The tournament is sponsored by Lyn Wheatley with Safety Net Behavioral Healthcare who was the first college graduate from the ranches.

The price for a four-player team is $600. Sponsorship levels range from $100 for a hole sponsorship to $2,000 for the Platinum level with increasing benefits given to the higher tiers. All sponsors receive at least one team in the event and recognition for their support.

Please call Pat Downing at 334-462-0432 or Molly Gray at 334-531-6842 or call the administrative office at 334-213-2071 for more information on honoring these precious young people through this charitable event.

Website: www.alsyr.org.

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