An Alabama community was plunged into deep grief after a car accident Saturday killed 10 people — nine of them children, including a 9-month-old.
Eight of the children, ages 3 to 17, were traveling in a vehicle owned by a residential home for youths when they were killed in Butler County, Alabama, about an hour southwest of Montgomery.
The small bus operated by the Alabama Sheriffs Youth Ranches, whose mission is "to provide Christian, family-style residential homes for Alabama's needy, neglected, or abused, school-age children,” was in a pileup of more than a dozen cars on Interstate 65. Officials suspect the crash was triggered by wet weather from the remnants of Tropical Storm Claudette.
Four of the children who perished from the crash were girls who lived at the ranch, and the other four children who died were related to someone who worked at the ranch, according to AL.com.
The two other victims, Cody Fox, a 29-year-old father, and his 9-month-old, Ariana, were killed in a separate vehicle.
“I’ll tell you what I do know, those children are in a much better place, they’re with God, cause they all love God,” Michael Smith, the CEO of the Alabama Sheriff’s Youth Ranch, told the NBC affiliate WSFA.
Smith, who spent time with the girls who attended his organization's Tallapoosa County ranch, said he “felt like the blessed one” being able to know them.
The National Transportation Safety Board and the Alabama Highway Patrol sent 10 investigators to the scene Sunday to look into “vehicle technologies such as forward collision warning systems, CMV fuel tank integrity, motor carrier operations and occupant survivability,” according to the NTSB’s Twitter account.
Over the weekend, mourners gathered to grieve and pray together at Tallapoosa County's Reeltown High School, where girls who died Saturday went to school. Their names have not been released.
One of the girls who stays at the ranch and remained unnamed because she is in state custody, spoke at the high school, remembering her lost “sisters.”
“When people hear about the ranch, they usually assume that the girls have done something wrong or bad to get there. But that’s not the case,’' she said, according to AL.com. “These girls have been through so much, and they were such strong, wonderful, kind family members and it was my privilege and my honor to be their big sister.”
“I’ve lost a lot of family throughout my entire life, and I’ve been prepared for a lot of situations, but nothing could have prepared me for this,’' the teen whose speech offered a glimpse into the lives of the girls said.
The girls at the ranch often come from backgrounds of neglect or abuse and find a safe haven through the program, the teen said. There, they learn about faith and find community in one another.
Located in Camp Hill, Alabama, the Tallapoosa County Sheriffs Youth Ranch houses high schoolers in crisis. The ranch there has three homes for girls, three staff houses, an office, a chapel, gym and pool, according to the website. Opened by the Alabama Sheriffs' Association in 1973, it was meant to provide children with stability as they navigate high school.
"The Ranches are homes for these children, not reform schools or correctional institutions," according to its website.
The group also takes the girls on trips and vacations, one of which they were returning from when the crash occurred.
Reeltown High Principal Cliff Maddox struggled to find words at the ceremony, AL.com reported.
“Everybody’s still in shock. I’m in a fog. I can’t hardly talk," he said.
Tallapoosa County Schools Superintendent Raymond C. Porter said in a statement that his district will try to provide support to the grieving students and their parents.
“At Reeltown School, we have counselors available for any student who may need or want help or any type of assistance surrounding this loss. We encourage you, as parents, to also feel free to use our resources,” he wrote in a letter to parents Sunday.
This story first appeared on NBCNews.com.