20-year-old killed, 15 injured in I-75 crash
LAUDERHILL, Fla. (WSVN) -- A South Florida church congregation is reeling from a rollover accident on Interstate 75 that claimed the life of a young member and injured 15 others, including a 2-year-old child, Saturday.
Authorities said the crash that took place around 7:30 a.m. on Mile Marker 123, just south of Fort Myers, left the 16-person van flipped on its roof in the middle of the highway. In the back of the vehicle, 20-year-old Nostra Damas perished.
The vehicle, the second of a three-van caravan, was transporting members of the Maranatha Seventh-day Adventist Church from Lauderhill to a convention in Tampa.
"When I wake up, I heard people screaming, so that's when I was hoping everyone was OK," said Lola Phanor, who was driving the van.
Melinda Damas, the victim's sister, was the first rider who saw the victim. "I opened my eyes, and I realized that I was alive," she said. "I said, 'Thank you, Jesus.' As I got off the bus ... I saw my brother, I saw him shaking. He was just shaking, and blood was just coming out from his [body]."
Melinda urged her brother to continue breathing. "I was telling him, 'Breathe, Nostra, just breathe, take your time, breathe, just breathe, Nostra,'" she said. She added that her sibling was not supposed to go on the cross-state convention trip, but she begged him to accompany her.
Rescuers and Florida Highway Patrol troopers scooped up people of all ages strewn across I-75. Nostra Damas, a second-year student at Broward College, was the only casualty.
"[The driver] took his head, and she turned it around to see him, and his eyes were like this," Melinda said as she rolled her eyes upwards. "And he was still shaking."
Phanor, who was driving the second in a three-van caravan, said she felt the tires shaking.
"We were in the car, and all of a sudden, I heard the tire pop," said Melinda. "It turned the car ... and it was leaning too much on that flat tire."
According to FHP troopers, the back left tire blew out, and several people were ejected from the van as it rolled over twice across the highway.
"I, thank God, still had my seat belt on," said Phanor. "I then looked for everybody else."
"Do you see my shirt? That's the blood," said John Robert Fede as he showed his shirt sleeve. He was driving one of the two other vans in the caravan.
The youngest victim, a 2-year-old child, sustained injuries so severe that the toddler was airlifted to a Tampa hospital. Seven people were still hospitalized Saturday night in Fort Myers.
The people who were not injured returned to their Lauderhill church to pray for their fellow worshippers. Nostra Damas' family members have begun to gather at his North Lauderdale home.
Church member Estimond Fritz said he turns to a higher power at moments like this. "It is difficult to say exactly where we're going," he said. "God knows."
FHP troopers said this investigation is complicated, and it will take several them to determine how this accident happened.
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