By JIM SUHR
ST. LOUIS — A van carrying church members returning from a California gathering careened off of a southern Illinois freeway and overturned several times today, killing five people and sending six others to hospitals, authorities said.
Illinois State Police Sgt. Mark Zimmerman said five people died at the scene of the accident, which occurred shortly before 10 a.m. on Interstate 70 just west of Vandalia, about 70 miles east of St. Louis. Nine of the 11 people on the van were ejected, Zimmerman said.
Details about what caused the crash or who owned the white 2002 Dodge van, which had no decals or displayed markings, were not immediately available.
Shawn Carter, a Fayette County sheriff’s deputy, told The Associated Press that it appears the van — headed eastbound from what he called a religious event in California — initially swerved onto the freeway’s grassy median, then veered back across both lanes of the interstate highway before flipping several times. The van came to rest less than 10 feet from the highway’s shoulder, he said.
“There weren’t any other vehicles involved,” Carter said. “I’m not sure what caused this.”
The 15-passenger van had Maryland license plates, though Carter could not immediately say whether the vehicle belonged to a church or was a rental.
The names of the victims who died still had not been released as of late this afternoon. It’s unclear if the driver was among them.
Fayette County Coroner Bruce Bowen didn’t immediately return calls for comment.
Four survivors were listed in fair condition at Vandalia’s Fayette County Hospital, hospital spokeswoman Lyn Gartke said. Two of those patients were transferred to a Springfield hospital and another to a St. Louis-area one, Gartke said. The two other survivors were taken to Greenville Regional Hospital, where their medical statuses weren’t immediately available.
Both eastbound lanes of the freeway remained closed as of mid-afternoon today as two crash-reconstruction officers with the state police tried to sort out how the crash happened.
— Associated Press