Witnesses, families grappling with loss after 6 killed in fiery I-85 van crash

Several drivers who saw the burning van on I-85 in Gwinnett County tried to rescue the 16 passengers. Six people died in the crash.
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Several drivers who saw the burning van on I-85 in Gwinnett County tried to rescue the 16 passengers. Six people died in the crash.

Credit: Georgia Department of Transportation

Days after an addiction recovery center van overturned and burst into flames on I-85 in Gwinnett County, the families of six women who were killed in the fiery crash — and the witnesses who pulled the survivors from the wreckage — are trying to process the horrific tragedy.

Though police have not released the names of the victims, and the sober living community We Are Living Proof has been guarded with information regarding its members who survived the crash, family members, neighbors and friends have begun openly mourning the losses.

Donnie Richeson, who previously said he helped pull women from the burning van, expressed through his wife that he wishes to refrain from publicly discussing the incident while he and the survivors place their focus on healing. Beth Richeson said her husband has been in contact with a few of the survivors, who are “forever changed” by what they saw.

The couple live in Concord, North Carolina, and Donnie Richeson works in the racing industry. His wife said he was returning home from Talladega, Alabama, when he saw the wreck.

Those images are imprinted on Donnie’s brain, but being able to speak on the phone with one of the women he rescued has helped to combat the sorrowful thoughts, his wife said.

”She sent pictures of the girls as they were (before the crash) to replace the images he has in his mind of that day,” Beth Richeson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday. “We’re just trying to give him new thoughts and new visions.”

Calls began pouring in around 6:30 p.m. Saturday about a passenger van on its side engulfed in flames on the interstate near the split for I-985. 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.

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, Channel 2 Action News reported.

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.

“Based on statements at the scene, another vehicle may have been directly or indirectly involved in this incident,” police said.

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.

Police have not officially confirmed the identities of any of the six victims. Authorities said detectives are trying to speak with the surviving passengers, who were rushed to several different metro Atlanta hospitals after the crash.

“Investigators are still trying to make contact with everyone,” a spokesman for the police department said.

In a Facebook post, We Are Living Proof 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.

We Are Living Proof, 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.

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.