“Investigators are still trying to make contact with everyone,” a spokesman for the police department told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday afternoon.
The surviving passengers were rushed to several different metro Atlanta hospitals after the crash, which happened in the northbound lanes of I-85 near the I-985 split, police said.
Calls began pouring in around 6:30 p.m. about a passenger van on its side engulfed in flames on the interstate. 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.
Several drivers who saw the burning vehicle tried to rescue the 16 passengers, investigators said.
The charred shell of the van was taken to Gwinnett police headquarters, Channel 2 Action News reported. Investigators are looking through the vehicle for any evidence that a collision occurred prior to the fire.
“Based on statements at the scene, another vehicle may have been directly or indirectly involved in this incident,” police said.
While police have not released the names of those who were killed, authorities said all 16 of the van’s passengers were adults and the vehicle was affiliated with the We Are Living Proof sober living community. The organization, which also bills itself as Sober Living Recovery, aims to “provide long-term care to individuals suffering from addiction.”
“We believe in accepting individuals the day they are ready for help, and offer same-day admissions whenever possible,” the organization’s website said.
According to Channel 2, the van was headed to a sobriety awards ceremony when it overturned.
Family members identified one of the victims as Alishia Carroll, Channel 2 reported. Carroll a, mother of four, was battling a drug addiction and had just arrived at the rehabilitation facility the week before the crash, her family told the news station.
Wanda Garza said her daughter sent her a photo just before the crash.
“She was getting ready to go to her meeting and that was the very last picture she took,” Garza told Channel 2.
Credit: Channel 2 Action News
Credit: Channel 2 Action News
We Are Living Proof’s leader was not available for comment, but in a Facebook post the organization said it was “deeply saddened by the lives lost in Saturday evening’s tragic accident.”
“We ask that you join us in prayer for the families and loved ones of the ladies we lost as well as the survivors,” the post read.
In response to the post, dozens of people offered support for the organization and the victims of the crash.
“This is my biggest fear,” one commenter wrote. “As a counselor that drives our patients in a van just like this, I cannot image the impact this would have on our treatment community. My thoughts and prayers go out to all the victims, the staff at this facility, and the (families) of everyone involved.”
Two of the witnesses kicked through a windshield to help get people out, Channel 2 reported.
“The van was leaking fuel. The fire was just growing so fast,” said Donnie Richeson, who told Channel 2 he helped pull victims from the flames. “The fire was doubling itself every second it seemed like.”
In a Facebook post, Richeson’s wife said he is “pretty shook up” after the tragedy. The couple live in Concord, North Carolina, and he works in the racing industry. His wife posted that he was returning home from Talladega, Alabama, when he saw the wreck.
“He thought only one was killed because he was there with everyone,” she wrote following reports on the incident’s death toll. “He just read (the updates) and is trying to wrap his head around how this could be.”
The couple were not available to comment on the incident Monday.
The cause of the wreck is still under investigation. Witnesses are asked to call the police department’s Accident Investigation Unit tip line at 678-442-5653.