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Fiery crash kills 7 young relatives

Tractor-trailer rear-ends car stopped behind school bus

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Barbara Mann, the adoptive mother of the Mann children, is consoled at the crash scene.

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Florida

(CNN) -- Seven children, including an infant, died Wednesday when a tractor-trailer rear-ended their car near Gainesville, Florida, slamming it into the rear of a school bus that had stopped to let children off.

The car, which was driven by a 15-year-old girl with a learner's permit, burst into flames, killing everyone inside, said Lt. Mike Burroughs of the Florida Highway Patrol. The truck was partially burned, its cab overturned.

In Florida, it is illegal for a 15-year-old to drive without an adult being in the car.

The accident occurred shortly after 3 p.m., four miles south of Lake Butler in northern Florida.

The bus was carrying students home from Lake Butler Elementary School and Lake Butler Middle School in the Union County School District.

Three of nine children on the bus were seriously injured and were taken by helicopter to hospitals. None of the students' injuries was life-threatening, said Lt. Bill Leeper of the Florida Highway Patrol.

But a spokeswoman for Shands Hospital in Gainesville said eight patients were transported, ages 5 to 16. Two were in critical condition; three in serious condition, said Betsy Miller.

The drivers of the bus and the truck also were injured, but their conditions weren't immediately known. Their names were not immediately available.

Video showed charred debris -- most of it unidentifiable -- strewn over a large patch of scorched ground next to State Highway 121. The vehicles were being towed from the scene late Wednesday, and the highway had not yet been reopened.

Burroughs identified the victims as Cynthia Mann and Elizabeth Mann, both 15; Ashley Keen and Johnny Mann, both 13; Miranda Finn, 9; Heaven Mann, 3; and Anthony Lamb, 20 months.

The Manns, except for Anthony, were adopted foster children; and the family was in the process of adopting Anthony, Burroughs said. Ashley and Miranda were cousins.

Cynthia Mann was at the wheel of the car, said Tina Mann, her aunt.

"Yes, she's 15, she had her learner's permit, she knows how to drive," Mann said.

"Even though she was an under-age driver, it's my understanding she did not cause the accident," she said. "The same thing would have happened had there been an adult in the car with her. We'd just have one more death in the family."

Mann said her niece had just dropped off another child and was taking the rest of the children home "to get ready to go to church when this happened."

The crash occurred on Southwest 75th Way, 20 miles north of Gainesville.

All the vehicles were headed north at the time of the wrecks, Leeper said, adding, "For some reason, the (truck) driver failed to stop."

The accident occurred in good weather along a straight stretch of road that has a posted speed limit of 60 mph.

"There doesn't seem to be any reason why the semi could not observe the two vehicles stopped," Leeper said. "For some reason -- we're still trying to determine why -- he did not stop."

"It's a very chaotic scene," Burroughs said late in the afternoon. "We're having trouble removing the family members from the car because of the way the car is lodged in and tied in with the metal pieces of the tractor-trailer."

"It is a mangled, fiery crash," he said, adding that "it was a very sad moment" when victims' family members visited the scene.

The tractor-trailer was operated by the Crete Carrier Corporation, based in Lincoln, Nebraska.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with those involved in this accident and their families. We are in the process of gathering information, and at this point we are unable to accurately discuss the incident," said a statement from Chief Operating Officer Jack Peetz on the company's Web site.

"We are very sorry and deeply saddened that this tragedy has happened. We will work diligently with the appropriate authorities on the investigation."

The National Transportation Safety Board said a team of investigators was to arrive Wednesday night at the crash site.

"The semis drive way too fast," said Effie White, a nearby resident.

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