FORT PIERCE, Fla. — The congregants of a close-knit Haitian church gathered Monday around Nicolas Alexis, hoping to learn what happened to 18 friends and loved ones who had been expected to return that morning from a late Palm Sunday service.
Alexis described how he frantically tried to check who was alive after their overloaded church van crashed in the darkness in rural southwest Florida.
Three men who had been seated near the 57-year-old died. Alexis said he kicked out a window to escape.
"I just know there is a God," said Alexis, sitting in a chair dragged outside the Independent Haitian Assembly of God to ease the pain in his bandaged leg and fractured ribs.
The crash early Monday in Glades County, about 60 miles from the Fort Pierce church, killed eight people. Alexis, the church's pastor and eight others were injured.
The van crashed after the driver apparently missed a stop sign at an unlit T-intersection surrounded by farmland, sending the vehicle across four lanes and plunging through tall grasses into a shallow canal.
Eighteen people were in the 15-seat-capacity van when it crashed about 12:30 a.m. Monday, about halfway through their trip home.
"That's a very steep embankment, and they kind of did a nosedive," said Lt. Gregory S. Bueno of the Florida Highway Patrol.
The crash killed the male driver and seven passengers, four male and three female, troopers said. FHP has identified the victims as driver Volsaint Marsaille, 58; Jude Petit-Frere, 66; Obernise Petit-Frere, 58; Lifaite Lochard, 58; Madeleine William, 53; Wanie Larose, 60; Dazilla Joseph, 79; and Servilus Dieudonne, 71.
The agency identified 10 other passengers taken to four hospitals. Among them was a 4-year-old child who was not in a car seat, Bueno said. The child was taken to a hospital and later discharged.
The Highway Patrol spoke briefly spoke to some survivors and will conduct more in-depth interviews, Bueno said. A full investigation will assess any mechanical issues with the van, he added.
All the people in the van were from Fort Pierce. They had been returning to the Independent Haitian Assembly of God after making their usual Palm Sunday trip to another church in Fort Myers.
The church's pastor, 57-year-old Esperant Lexine, was hospitalized in critical condition.
"He hasn't learned of the fatalities yet," Dina Lexine Sarver, his daughter, told The Associated Press. "He was able to tell us that somebody was able to get out of the van and flag somebody down."
Lexine founded his church more than 35 years ago, and half the people in the van were longtime members of his congregation, Sarver said.
They had left Sunday afternoon as planned, excited to be celebrating Palm Sunday and preparing for the upcoming Easter holiday after a recent fast, she said.
Sarver said her father regularly had the van inspected before similar trips, and the driver was a school bus driver when he wasn't driving for the church.
"The driver has been driving them for 30 years. He's always the chauffeur, he's done this trip numerous times," Sarver said.
Nozaire Nore, 48, who suffered a broken leg in the crash, also returned to the church to seek solace. With his niece translating from Haitian Creole, Nore told Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers (http://bit.ly/1xsZnml ) that the driver didn't notice a curve in the road and couldn't stop in time.
Another motorist called 911 after being flagged down by a survivor of the crash while his friend looked for a rope to try and help people up from the ravine.
"There's probably some dead people in there," the unidentified motorist said on a recording of the call.
While other congregants rushed to the 150-member church to console each other in its simple wooden pews, Philippe Dorce drove to the crash site west of Lake Okeechobee. He said his father-in-law and cousin had been on the van, and he helped authorities identify the victims.
"I was there trying to be a man. But at the same time, I'm crying too," he said.
Sedensky reported from Moore Haven, Florida. Associated Press writers Jennifer Kay and Freida Frisaro in Miami also contributed to this report.