CAMP HILL, Ala. — Caring for abused and neglected girls is Candice Gulley’s life work, and that’s what she was doing when she helped load vans from an Alabama children’s home for a trip to the beach. The kids walked on the sand, ate seafood and threw an early, dinosaur-themed fourth birthday party for her son, Ben, during a week on the coast.
With Gulley behind the wheel of a van headed back to the home as Tropical Storm Claudette blew through the South, the trip ended in a cataclysmic crash. The van was caught in a chain-reaction wreck on a rain-slick interstate that involved 17 vehicles, seven of which caught fire — some reduced to twisted, burned-out hulks. Two of Gulley’s own children and two nephews were among the 10 dead.
The lone survivor in her van, Gulley was recovering from her physical injuries Tuesday, which would have been Ben’s birthday. One relative made an appeal on social media for people to pray for Gulley; another posted a video of the little boy as a tribute.
Gulley said last month that she had a tough childhood which left her “clinging to God” after her father’s suicide when she was just 8, but the added emotional trauma of the crash is hard to fathom.
Social work is a notoriously tough job, but Gulley relished the challenge at the Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch, a Christian-based group home where she and her husband, Tommy, began working and living a decade ago after years in youth ministry in Mobile, their hometown.
“They are like my second parents,” former ranch resident Therese Meshall Crawford said Wednesday of the couple, who were her house parents a decade ago. “The best way to explain Candice and Tommy is they are the most open-hearted people ever. Candice, she will do anything for you.”
Crawford, 26, said she knew the Gulley’s two children who were killed in the crash for much of their lives.
“It broke my heart. I cried for hours. I still cry, ” Crawford, now a mother herself and an aspiring nurse.
Gulley has a “God-given ability to relate to children in a positive way,” said Jerry Ferguson, a pastor who worked with the ranches for 30 years and hired the Gulleys as house parents.
“She was genuine. She had the ability to relate to children at their level, that was very important,” Ferguson said
Often known as “mom and pop” to the girls, the couple would play games with their charges, take them on trips and horse rides, all while pushing them to excel in school and showing unconditional love and support, he recalled. For some of the girls, he said, it was the first taste of a supportive family life.
“Lots of our kids were in situations where the people who were supposed to love them the most did the most harm to them,” Ferguson said.
In a Facebook live interview in May, Gulley described both her own life and the ranch, which she said is different from other foster care operations.
“Really, I think what sets us apart is it’s a family. Kids come and they go, but once they set roots down at the ranch, we’re your family,” Gulley said. In a way, the beach trip was like a family vacation: girls from troubled homes who often come to consider one another sisters traveling with stand-in parents.
The wreck killed Gulley’s 16-year-old daughter, Isabella, and 3-year-old Ben. Her two nephews, 12-year-old Josiah Dunnavant and 8-year-old Nicholas Dunnavant, who lived near Mobile, also were killed.
“They were just all sweet loving children,” Candice Gulley’s aunt, Desiree Bishop, told FOX10.
“It’s a high price to pay. It just comes in waves of grief, just waves of grief,” she said.
Authorities haven’t said what caused the wreck, which also killed four ranch residents who’ve not been publicly identified, as well as Cody Fox of Tennessee and his 9-month-old daughter, Ariana. But witnesses said the road was wet because of Claudette, and authorities said vehicles may have hydroplaned.
Someone pulled Gulley out of the wreckage on Interstate 65, but no one else in the van could be saved. She was hospitalized afterward.
Gulley, who has five children including a daughter adopted from the ranch, took over as director in 2019 after her predecessor departed for another position. She’d previously worked as a house parent, serving as a fill-in mom and mentor to girls who arrived at the home because of abandonment, abuse or neglect.
Sometimes families are too broke to care for a child; other times a girl must be removed from her home because of drug abuse by parents, said Michael Smith, chief executive of Alabama Youth Homes. But Gulley is there for them all, helping teach the importance of well-done chores and finished schoolwork while sharing her own steadying faith in God.
As director, she oversees ranch management, staff and helps with fundraising.
“We create an environment that has structure, that has stability,” she said in the Facebook interview.
After missing out on events including annual beach trips because of the pandemic, the girls and ranch workers looked forward to the break at the coast, Smith said. They all packed into two vans and loaded a trailer with suitcases for the trip to Gulf Shores, where Smith said he met the group for lunch four days before the crash.
“They get to pick the place they want to go out eat,” he said. “We had a really good time. The girls had a ball.”
The crash sent shockwaves through Camp Hill and Reeltown, the rural communities closest to the home located on a two-lane road about 60 miles (97 kilometers) northeast of Montgomery.
Terrie Webster, who works at a store near the ranch, said a woman she knows who works as a house parent at the home would have been on the van if not for a late change of plans. Webster said she can’t begin to understand the pain caused by the wreck.
“It’s awful. I can’t even imagine,” Webster said.
Tallapoosa County Sheriff Jimmy Abbett, who worked with Gulley over her nearly 11 years at the ranch, said Gulley always worries about her girls and their accomplishments are her proudest moments.
“Words can’t express what she is going through,” he said. “Knowing Candice like I do, she is worried about the girls and the ranch, too.”