Gwinnett van crash victims remembered for their challenges, triumphs

Police identify 6 women killed when vehicle overturned on I-85, caught on fire
Normisha Monroe (clockwise from top left), Alishia Carroll, Rose Patrick and Ashleigh Paris were among six people killed Saturday when a van crashed in Gwinnett County. The other two victims were identified as 44-year-old Kristie Whitfield and 53-year-old Tina Rice.

Credit: Contributed

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Normisha Monroe (clockwise from top left), Alishia Carroll, Rose Patrick and Ashleigh Paris were among six people killed Saturday when a van crashed in Gwinnett County. The other two victims were identified as 44-year-old Kristie Whitfield and 53-year-old Tina Rice.

Credit: Contributed

Normisha Monroe was working hard to turn her life around after a long battle with alcoholism.

The 38-year-old, who was known affectionately as “MiMi,” had been sober for nearly three years. She tried to encourage other women in the addiction recovery community where she lived with their own personal battles, her close friend Quest Hunter said.

”She had been in recovery for quite some time and had been living in the sober living home trying to get her life together,” Hunter told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And she was. She was very much an inspiration for the people that were living in the home.”

That progress, however, came to an abrupt, tragic end when Monroe and five other women were killed after a van carrying them to an addiction recovery group meeting overturned on I-85 and burst into flames Saturday.

The horrific crash has left the addiction recovery community shaken as friends, family members and neighbors grapple with the permanent final chapter assigned to six women who were struggling to rewrite their life stories. It happened just as many of them, including Monroe, had finally become content with the trajectory their lives were taking.

”I was ashamed and broken and a alcoholic 3 years ago,” Monroe wrote in a Facebook post just five days before the crash. “Look at me now. It’s by god’s grace. Mama, I did it.”

Gwinnett County police on Wednesday released the names of the women who died when the We Are Living Proof community vehicle crashed on I-85 at the split to I-985. Those who lost their lives alongside Monroe were Alishia Carroll, 34, of Columbus; Kristie Whitfield, 44, of Mount Airy; Ashleigh Paris, 26, of Kennesaw; Tina Rice, 53, of Atlanta; and Rose Patrick, 34, of Ellabell.

Ten people, including the van’s driver, survived the crash, Gwinnett police said. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is withholding the names of the survivors in light of their participation in an anonymous recovery program.

The women, who are from cities all across the metro area and state, were taken to two different hospitals with injuries after calls began pouring in around 6:30 p.m. about a passenger van on its side engulfed in flames.

“There’s somebody trapped in there and it’s on fire and there’s all kind of people trying to get them out,” one caller told a 911 dispatcher in a recording released by police.

“Have they been able to get them out yet?” the dispatcher asked the caller.

“I don’t think so,” the caller responded, “but it’s fully engulfed.”

Footage from Georgia Department of Transportation cameras showed the van in the middle of the road with thick flames consuming its entire body. Heavy smoke was towering over the vehicle as crews worked to put out the fire.

The vehicle was heading north on I-85 when “an unknown vehicle changed lanes unexpectedly in front of (the van),” according to a Gwinnett County police report.

The van’s driver lost control and the vehicle rolled onto its side. It slid across two lanes of the entrance ramp to I-985 and smashed into a guardrail before coming to a stop in the left lane, the report said.

“The unknown vehicle did not remain on the scene,” the report said.

Several drivers who saw the burning vehicle tried to rescue the 16 passengers, investigators said.

“Pedestrians around them are helping them get out of the car,” a second 911 caller told a dispatcher. “It looks like they’re struggling to get someone out.”

Initially, it wasn’t clear how many people were in the van. Some of the passengers were able to get out before the fire spread, and bystanders and first responders helped to rescue others. Two of the witnesses ran to the vehicle and kicked through a windshield to help get people out.

The charred shell of the van was taken to Gwinnett police headquarters. Investigators are looking through the vehicle for any evidence that a collision occurred prior to the fire.

We Are Living Proof, which also bills itself as Sober Living Recovery, is among the dozens of recovery care facilities that aim to help people struggling with addiction. The sober living organization’s model encourages residents to help their housemates stay accountable and committed to recovery.

The Buford-based recovery center had just reached the four-year anniversary of its founding at the time of the crash. According to Georgia Secretary of State records, the organization was founded on April 5, 2017.

The AJC has repeatedly tried to contact We Are Living Proof’s organizer, but has not received a response.

In the wake of the crash, the victims’ families are praying for answers about what led to the tragedy.

“I’m a mess,” said Steve Paris, whose daughter was killed in the wreck.

Paris told Channel 2 Action News his daughter, Ashleigh Paris, had just admitted herself to the program before her death.

“One minute I’m OK, the next minute I’m bawling my eyes out, I’m shaking, I’m crying,” he said. “She finally got sober, she got baptized and now she’s gone.”

The six women killed in the crash all had one thing in common, friends and family members said Wednesday: they were trying to get their lives back on track.

Alishia Carroll, a mother of four, had just moved into the sober living facility 24 hours earlier, her mother said.

But this time, she decided to go on her own.

“She had a long struggle with the drugs. We made her go and made her go, but this time she chose to go on her own,” her mother, Wanda Garza, said. “This was the first time she’d ever gone on her own because she wanted to.”

After years of struggling with addiction, Carroll hoped to get sober and become a better mother to her children, the youngest of which is just 2 years old, Garza said. Carroll was on her way to her first meeting Saturday and had spoken with her mom on Facetime hours prior.

“She was getting ready to go to her meeting and she seemed really excited,” Garza said. “She looked really good.”

Garza said her family was devastated by Carroll’s death.

“She was a good mom,” she said. “When she wasn’t battling her addiction, she was a good mother.”

Tamika Gooden, Monroe’s older sister, found about her death on Facebook and immediately rushed to the hospital. She learned hours later that while most passengers survived the crash, “MiMi” was among those who didn’t make it.

She described Monroe as a “bright energy,” the type of person folks were automatically drawn to.

“She had her struggles, but she was a bright light for as long as I can remember,” Gooden said. “She was always such a great person and people just loved her instantly. She would help anybody that needed it; she just always had a big heart.”

A candlelight vigil for Monroe is set for 6 p.m. Saturday at Club Drive Park in Gwinnett. Her funeral service will be held the following afternoon at Life Church International in Duluth.