VAN BUREN, Ark. -- Nine people were killed Saturday when a runaway truck rammed a station wagon carrying seven family members and both vehicles crashed into a drugstore, causing an explosion that damaged a half-block area.
'If is an awfully big word but we might have had 50 people killed' if the wreck occurred several hours earlier, police chief Gary Robertson said Saturday as workers searched for bodies in the smoldering rubble.
He said federal Department of Transportation officials would be brought in to investigate the accident, the worst in the county's history.
Witnesses said the brakes on the tractor-trailer truck failed about 7:45 p.m. Friday, sending it careening down a -mile-long stretch of State Highway 59 leading into the downtown business district.
'With the stores open and crowded and an explosion of the nature we had, a lot of people could have been hurt,' he said. 'We're very fortunate to have limited this to what did occur.'
Robertson originally said workers found six victims early Saturday morning and four more were found later in the day. But, late Saturday authorities amended the death count to nine, saying a young girl's body found in the second group was counted twice.
Witnesses told police it appeared three people were in the truck but authorities said the only occupants in the truck were a man and his wife.
The street where the accident occurred was used as Main Street in the 1982 television miniseries about the Civil War, 'The Blue and the Grey.'
The area had been restored to the appearance of the Civil War era, although the destroyed drugstore and an adjoining building also destroyed were genuine relics, having been there since before the turn of the century.
Crawford County Coroner Nolan Broyles said all the victims had been burned, but he had not determined a cause of death for any of them.
Robertson identified the dead as: Kay Burt, 24; her husband Billy Burt, 30; Brenna Parish, 4, a stepdaughter; Randy Owenby Sr., 28; his wife Kathy, 28, who is the sister of Billy Burt; and her son, Randy Owenby II, 3, all found early Saturday. All were from Crawford County.
The body of Christie Burt, 8, a daughter of the Burts, was found early Saturday. The truck driver and his wife later were ide.tified as Dave R. Atchley, Jr., 20, and Rae Atchley, 17, both of Niagra Falls, N.Y.
Robertson said the seven bodies of the family members were found in or near the station wagon.
He said the truck went out of control, broadsided the station wagon and rolled over it. Both vehicles crashed through the store's outside wall and down into the basements of the stores.
'It looked like he just didn't have any brakes,' said Angus Hume, who was driving behind the truck on the winding stretch of road leading into town from Interstate 40.
'He started down the hill and when he hit the brakes there weren't any,' she said. 'He tried to gain control and shifted down, but it didn't do any good.'
A nearby building was seriously damaged and two more were slightly damaged in the explosion and fire that hit a half-block long section of the business district.
Fire Chief Jerry McGraw said the fire and explosion that came after the vehicles slammed into the stores was the result of 'the natural gas pipeline, the diesel from the truck and, I guess, gasoline from the car that exploded.'
Authorities said the truck apparently had expired California tags and no record of the vehicle could be found.