Tropical Depression Claudette continued its destructive path Sunday night, leaving at least 13 dead in Alabama as it strengthened along its path towards the Atlantic Coast.
Though the depression was not yet a tropical storm, it was forecast to continue its strengthening into one as soon as later Sunday night over eastern North Carolina before becoming a post-tropical cyclone Tuesday.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the deadly multi-vehicle Alabama collision that took place Saturday, and an investigator is expected to be at the pileup location Sunday night, spokesman Keith Holloway said. Ten NTSB investigators will coordinate with the Alabama Highway Patrol.
The collision, killed at least 10 people, including nine children, authorities said.
Eight of the children were involved in Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch, south of Montgomery, Alabama. The program is part of the nonprofit Alabama Sheriffs Youth Ranches, which provide homes for needy, neglected or abused school-age children.
"Please send prayers our way as we navigate this difficult time," the Tallapoosa ranch said in a Facebook post.
A website for the ranch shows the children attend Reeltown School. A Facebook post for the high school said it planned to offer counseling support and a prayer session Sunday afternoon.
The crash occurred on Interstate 65 at around 2:30 p.m. Saturday in Butler County, south of Montgomery. The wreck blocked traffic in both directions for most of the day.
Butler County Sheriff Danny Bond told the Montgomery Advertiser, part of the USA TODAY Network, that the "horrific scene" was the worst traffic accident he'd ever witnessed. He said the tragedy involved 18 vehicles and caused multiple injuries.
Michael Smith, the youth ranches CEO, said the van was heading back to the ranch near Camp Hill, northeast of Montgomery, after a week at the beach in Gulf Shores. It caught fire after the wreck and Candice Gulley, the ranch director, was the van’s only survivor – pulled from the flames by a bystander.
“This is the worst tragedy I’ve been a part of in my life,” said Michael Smith, the youth ranches CEO, who added that two of the children who died were Gulley's children. Four others were ranch residents and two were guests, Smith said.
The crash also claimed the lives of two other people who were in a separate vehicle. Garlock identified them as 29-year-old Cody Fox and his 9-month-old daughter, Ariana, both of Marion County, Tennessee.
National Transportation Safety Board investigations typically involve close examination of accident sites and efforts to reconstruct the circumstances. The investigations often continue for months before the likely cause is identified and made public. The agency tweeted that the Alabama investigation will focus on "vehicle technologies such as forward collision warning systems, (commercial motor vehicle) fuel tank integrity, motor carrier operations and occupant survivability."
Meanwhile, a 24-year-old man and a 3-year-old boy were also killed Saturday when a tree fell on their house just outside the Tuscaloosa city limits, said Capt. Jack Kennedy of the Tuscaloosa Violent Crimes Unit. Makayla Ross, a 23-year-old Fort Payne woman, died Saturday after her car ran off the road into a swollen creek, DeKalb County Deputy Coroner Chris Thacker told WHNT-TV.
Claudette brings flooding to Southeast, heads toward East Coast
The deaths occurred as drenching rains from Tropical Depression Claudette pelted northern Alabama and Georgia late Saturday. As much as 12 inches (30 centimeters) of rain was reported earlier from Claudette along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Flash flood watches were posted Sunday for eastern Georgia, the southern two-thirds of South Carolina and the North Carolina coast. A tropical storm warning was in effect in North Carolina from the Little River Inlet to the town of Duck on the Outer Banks. A tropical storm watch was issued from South Santee River, South Carolina, to the Little River Inlet, forecasters said.
WBRC-TV reported that search efforts were also under way for a man believed to have fallen into the water during flash flooding in Birmingham. Crews were using boats to search Pebble Creek.
The center of Claudette’s disorganized circulation was located about 65 miles northeast of Columbia, South Carolina. It was moving east-northeast at 20 mph, the National Hurricane Center said.
Claudette battered parts of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and the Florida Panhandle with high winds Saturday, tearing roofs off houses and flipping an 18-wheeler and a mobile home. The storm sparked reports of multiple tornadoes.
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More than 20 people were rescued by boat after flooding in Northport, Alabama, WVUA-TV reported. Birmingham Fire and Rescue Service Capt. Bryan Harrell said a search was underway for a man who was possibly swept away by flooding.
Rainfall totaled 5 to 10 inches in southeast Louisiana, southern Mississippi, southern Alabama, and the western Florida panhandle, the National Hurricane Center reported Sunday afternoon. Isolated areas saw up to 15 inches.
Claudette continued to produce heavy rains and the threat of flash floods across much of the Southeast, the report said. It carried maximum sustained wind of 30 mph Sunday afternoon.
Bands of heavy rain will occur across portions of central and southern Georgia, central and coastal South Carolina and eastern North Carolina through Monday morning as the weather system tracks north and east, the report said.
Flash, urban and small stream flooding, as well as new and renewed minor river flooding, are possible across these areas.
Additional strengthening could occur over the western Atlantic Ocean early Tuesday.
Tropical Depression Claudette's strength: High winds, tornadoes and drenching rain reported as Tropical Depression Claudette batters parts of Gulf Coast
Contributing: Elinor Aspegren, USA TODAY; Brad Harper, Montgomery Advertiser; Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Claudette becomes a tropical storm; 13 dead in Alabama