ELIZABETHTOWN, KY. - Police say six members of an extended Wisconsin family were killed and two injured when their SUV was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer and burst into flames on a Kentucky highway. Minutes later, another crash in the opposite direction injured three, one critically.
Police say the first crash happened at 10:13 a.m. Saturday on northbound Interstate 65 near Elizabethtown.
Police say all occupants of the SUV were from Marion, Wis. They were identified as James Gollnow, 62, and his wife Barbara, 62; Marion Champnoise, 92; Sarina Gollnow, 18; and 2 foster children, ages 8 and 10.
The two survivors were also foster children. They were both transported to local hospitals in Lexington, one with burns and a broken spine; and the other with cuts to the back of his head. Their injuries are not life-threatening.
Police say after the SUV was hit, it hit the car in front of it, but the driver of that vehicle had only minor injuries.
Master Trooper Norman Chaffins said that extended family from Marion, was riding in a 1999 Ford Expedition when it was hit from behind. He didn't know where they were headed.
The SUV was "totally engulfed in flames. It was totally destroyed by the fire," he said, adding, "It's just a charred mess."
He said one eyewitness told police two people emerged from the blaze and one appeared to be on fire.
The two crashes shut down the busy stretch of highway for about five hours.
Chaffins says despite snow flurries, weather was not a factor in either crash.
The driver of the tractor-trailer was not injured and was cooperating with police, Chaffins said. He was not identified.
"He's obviously pretty torn up about everything," he said.
The southbound crash involved a tractor-trailer and three other vehicles and Chaffins said police were investigating whether rubbernecking was the cause.
Those injured in the second crash were taken to hospitals but were not identified.
Rhonda Vanhandel was a neighbor to the Gollnow's in a community of a little less than a thousand people known as Pella.
Vanhandel has a lot of memories of the kids.
She says she used to hear them play on four-wheelers and see them leave for school in the mornings.
"I saw the kids get on the bus just down the road here everyday, and it was really sad to hear what happened to them," she said.
She says it's hard to grasp the fact that the couple and their children, who she saw on a regular basis were taken from the world so suddenly.
"They'd go down to one of our local establishments, take the kids down for steaks on a Saturday night, they were nice hard-working people," she said.
While the fatal crash hits home for many in this community. People a few miles away in Marion offered prayers for the victims.
"It's just sad. Sadness. We all feel for them and their families," Tiah Gretzinger of Clintonville said.
To those parishioners who knew the victims, pastor Brad Dokken helps to provide healing at his church.
"As the pastor, I spent today talking with some of the high school and junior high kids about what happened and how we deal with loss and grief," he said.
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