COMMUNITY GRIEVES FOR FIVE CHILDREN

This large poster was displayed at the community vigil on Jan. 7 at Marksville High School's Warren Douglas Memorial Stadium. The bleachers were filled by those coming together to grieve, pray and offer support for family members and victims of the horrific four-vehicle accident that killed seven and injured eight on I-75 near Gainesville, Fla., on Jan. 3. {Photo by Raymond L. Daye}

Community stunned by deaths of five children in I-75 tragedy

What started as a joyful trip that children dream of turned into every parent’s nightmare when a van carrying members of Avoyelles House of Mercy church was involved in a multi-vehicle accident that killed five children and injured seven other members of the church.

The tragedy has once again brought national attention to the small city of Marksville and the rural parish of Avoyelles. Other recent tragedies that attracted national media attention include the November 2015 shooting death of 6-year-old Jeremy Mardis by Marksville City Marshal's Office deputies at a traffic stop and the murder of up-and-coming rap artist Taji "Marley G" Simon in a Marksville bar this past October.

“It’s just beyond belief,” Marksville Mayor John Lemoine said. “It just hasn’t set in yet, to just finish the Christmas holidays and have a new year start off with such tragedy.

“It’s affected everybody,” Lemoine continued. “That is what’s so terrible about this. You have kids going to enjoy themselves and this happens.”

Rev. Carolyn Fletcher of Marksville United Methodist said the shock stretches across the entire community and across denominational lines.

“In about every place you go, every church you go in, every restaurant you go in, it's mentioned,” she said.

In the days following the accident, a stunned community began the healing process with public memorial services for Joel Cloud, 14, Jeremiah Warren, 14, Cierra Bordelon, 9, Cara Descant, 13 and Brianna Descant, 10, all of Marksville.

Prayers have also been offered for those hospitalized with serious injuries: Amy Joffrion, 45, and Noah Joffrion, 14, of Mansura; Ali Laborde, 30, Karen Descant, 50, and Chelsea Laborde, 11, of Marksville; and Trinity Woodward, 9, and Chance Bernard, 9, of Hessmer.

Two truck drivers were also killed and a passenger sedan driver was seriously injured in the four-vehicle accident.

Karen Descant, the wife of pastor Eric Descant, sustained seven broken ribs, a broken collarbone and multiple bruises and cuts. Their granddaughter Brianna is one of the children killed in the accident.

“My Lord Jesus,” Rev. Descant said in a Facebook post, “Though we have lost these precious little babies, Heaven has just been beautified immensely with these little Jesus Name Babies.

“We know, Lord, they were always Yours,” he continued. “Though it is hard to fathom that they are back in the loving hands of their creator, we will always love them.”

EFFECT OF SOCIAL MEDIA

News of the tragedy started spreading in Avoyelles through social media within hours of the accident.

National media soon picked up the story and were calling for information and reaction from local officials and citizens.

Friends and members of the church asked for prayers for the families of those who lost loved ones and for healing for those with serious injuries.

District Attorney Charles Riddle asked for volunteers with planes to assist in taking family members to identify the victims.

Many families drove through the night to arrive in Gainesville early the next morning.

‘MOST TRAGIC MOMENT'

Maxine Doughty, a House of Mercy church member, was distraught at the news of the crash.

“Half of our children are gone,” she said through tears of grief. “This is the most tragic moment in my life.”

Avoyelles School District Superintendent Blaine Dauzat said three of the children killed attended Avoyelles public schools and were to return to school Wednesday (Jan. 9) from Christmas break.

“Cierra and Brianna were 4th and 5th graders from Lafargue Elementary and Jeremiah Warren was an 8th grader at Marksville High,” Dauzat said.

He noted the other two victims “had close ties to our system.”

Dauzat said all of the APSD students killed had been praised by their teachers as good students.

“Please pray not just for those lives lost but for those who will have to face an empty school desk as school begins again,” he added.

“Something like this always puts things in perspective,” Dauzat said. “No family, including the APSB family, should have to go through this. We will help however we can.”

At Tuesday's School Board meeting, Dauzat said grief counselors will be on hand at those schools affected as classes reopen after the holiday break.

Avoyelles Public Charter School Director Julie Roy said Cara was an 8th grader at the school. Also, two survivors of the accident are 5th graders at APCS.

APCS issued a statement saying “Our hearts are broken over the loss of one of our 8th grade students, along with the other fatalities and victims of the car wreck in Florida.”

The fifth victim, Joel Cloud, was home schooled.

Lafargue Elementary issued a statement saying the school was heartbroken over the tragedy. 

“Our love, thoughts, and prayers are with all of the families and friends affected. We are deeply saddened by the loss of two of our students and two former students.”

State Rep. Robert Johnson was saddened by the tragedy.

“As a parish we lost five beautiful children, but we can take comfort that Heaven gained five beautiful angels," Johnson said.

Disney World spokeswoman Jacque Wahler said there are “no words to convey the sorrow we feel for those involved.”

U.S. Sens. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Marco Rubio of Florida also sent their condolences to the families of the accident victims.

In a Facebook post, Gov. John Bel Edwards said, “Our hearts go out to every member of the Avoyelles House of Mercy” affected by the accident and called on the message’s readers to “join your prayers to mine as these families face the difficult days ahead.”

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