ST. LOUIS – A van carrying 11 men returning from a California religious gathering careened off of a southern Illinois freeway and overturned several times Monday, killing five of them and sending six others to hospitals, authorities said.
Bruce Bowen called Monday's crash scene on Interstate 70 west of Vandalia among the worst he's seen in his 13 years as coroner of Illinois' Fayette County. Nine of the men were thrown from the 15-passenger van as it tumbled over and over. Those who sustained fatal injuries died at the scene.
"It was total disaster," he told The Associated Press. "There were just bodies everywhere."
Bowen said the names of the men who died couldn't be released as of late Monday afternoon, given that he and other authorities were just starting to notify relatives.
The van's driver, who was among the six survivors, was conscious and still behind the wheel when emergency crews arrived, though it was unclear whether he was able to offer investigators any insight into why the 2002 Dodge vehicle with Maryland license plates went out of control shortly before 10 a.m.
"There weren't any other vehicles involved," Fayette County sheriff's deputy Shawn Carter said. "I'm not sure what caused this."
Carter said it appears the van was headed eastbound from what he called a religious event in California when it swerved onto I-70's grassy median. It then veered back across both lanes of the freeway before flipping several times.
Bowen, the coroner, said the van rolled "maybe as many as four times" before coming to rest near the highway's shoulder about 70 miles east of St. Louis.
It was not clear whether the van belonged to a church or was a rental. The white vehicle had no decals or displayed markings.
Four survivors were listed in fair condition at Vandalia's Fayette County Hospital, hospital spokeswoman Lyn Gartke said. Two of those patients were transferred to a Springfield hospital and another to a St. Louis-area one, Gartke said. The two other survivors were taken to Greenville Regional Hospital, where their medical statuses weren't immediately available.
Both eastbound lanes of the freeway were closed for hours to allow for crash-reconstruction experts with the state police to try to sort out how the incident happened. The highway was reopened Monday afternoon.
It was not immediately clear how many of the van's occupants were wearing seat belts, though Bowen said the fact that nine of them were thrown from the vehicle raised questions about where the passenger restraints were in use.