RAIFORD, Fla. (BP)–Seven children who perished in a fiery crash Jan. 25 in Lake Butler, Fla., were all family members and regulars at Fellowship Baptist Church in Raiford. The children’s grandfather, Edward Scott, 70, died of a heart attack hours after hearing about the accident. He was a long-time member of Ochwilla Baptist Church in Hawthorne, Fla.
The three-vehicle accident occurred near Gainesville in North Florida where the car with the seven children, which had stopped behind a school bus returning students home from three rural Union County schools, was sandwiched between the bus and a tractor-trailer on State Road 121.
Every one in the car was killed and nine children aboard the bus were injured. The bus driver, Lillie Perry, 46, and the truck driver, Alvin Wilkerson, 31, were hospitalized, according to the Associated Press.
Five of those who died were the children of Scott’s daughter, Barbara, and her husband, Terry Mann. They were a daughter, 15-year-old Cynthia Nicole “Nikki” Mann, who was from Mann’s previous marriage and her three adopted siblings — Elizabeth Mann, 15; Johnny Mann, 13; and Heaven Mann, 3. Also killed were 20-month-old Anthony Lamb, whose adoption was to have been finalized Jan. 26, and Terry and Barbara Mann’s nieces Ashley Keen, 13, and Miranda Finn, 8.
All three of the older siblings were members of Fellowship Baptist and the two youngest occupied the nursery whenever the church doors were open. The cousins, Ashley and Miranda, had just moved to Florida, but had visited at Fellowship Baptist previously.
Tammy Griffis, who ministers to the church’s youth along with her husband, Brian, told the Florida Baptist Witness that all three of the older children made professions of faith during summer youth camp, Nikki two years ago, and Elizabeth and Johnny this past summer — and all were baptized into church membership by Pastor Harold Hudson.
“They were very dedicated youth,” Griffis said. “They are a very close-knit family and they were always together. As long as we’ve known them, I’ve never seen them argue or say an unkind word. They were always helping each other.”
Griffis said the fact that Nikki, who had a learner’s permit, but not a driver’s license, was operating the car might have been out of the ordinary, but not altogether unusual in the rural community where it’s “common” to see 14-year-olds drive. The teen, whom Griffis described as a caring “mother hen,” was within a few miles of home where the family would get ready to be picked up by a church bus for Wednesday night activities.
“She did not drive to church,” Griffis said. Brian Griffis regularly picks up children and youth in a bus which travels a 50-mile circuit around the church, his wife explained.
Remembering Nikki as an individual “who never backed down about her faith,” Griffis said her caring nature extended to anyone she was around. On a recent Sunday, eager to prepare for a concert the youth planned, Nikki stood at the front of the church bus leading the others in song.
“She was pretty much the voice of what they were singing next,” Griffis said.
Peggy Cason, a founding member of Fellowship Baptist, said she has known Nicole all of the teen’s life and that the young woman used to attend church with her paternal grandmother, Mary Mann, who died over a year ago — even before her other siblings were adopted into the Mann family approximately three years ago.
Cason told the Witness more than 55 youth attended practice Jan. 19, overflowing the church’s choir loft. Cason said she was helping to lead the music and that out of three songs they had planned to perform, the Mann children most enjoyed the rousing anthem “Days of Elijah.”
“They all loved it,” Cason said, praising the church for having the vision to reach out to the area’s children. They will offer sharing and prayer time in support of the youth this Sunday Night, she said.
Molly Lewis, 15, described Nicole as a “real sweet” person with a good personality. A close friend who shared sleepovers, Christmas and even a family trip with Nicole, she struggled to keep her emotions in check.
“Nikki always had the biggest smile and was always real nice to everybody,” said Lewis, whose mother, Wanda, is the children’s director at the church.
Recalling good memories of her friends, Molly Lewis said there were too many instances to remember, but that Elizabeth also had a “good personality and was always funny.”
“I know I am going to see them all again,” Molly said.
Wanda Lewis, who spends about 45 minutes each way traveling to the rural church with her family from Jacksonville about three times a week, said she believes Molly would tell anyone she encounters that the most important thing is to know they are saved and to know Jesus Christ.
“Nicole and Molly were very close,” Wanda Lewis said. “They both knew the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal Savior and Molly has the assurance she will see Nicole again. She has God’s grace in that area.”
Remembering that Nicole, Elizabeth and Johnny all “loved the youth department and they loved to sing,” Lewis predicted the youth will continue to reach out to each other. “That’s the kind of community and church we are.”
Describing the youth group at Fellowship Baptist as “tight,” Griffis said they have grown by “leaps and bounds” and that in many ways, 15-year-old Elizabeth Mann exemplified their closeness.
“Elizabeth was the one who was always just full of hugs no matter what kind of day it was,” Griffis said, remembering that Elizabeth sat right behind Brian Griffis as he drove the bus throughout the county.
Crediting the Mann parents with taking care of foster children, no matter the circumstances, Griffis said the children “learned from their mom and dad to love and care.”
Griffis said the children had two older siblings, both boys, although she doesn’t know what their exact relationship was to the family. Laughing at a memory of 13-year-old Johnny Mann playing flag football, Griffis said she remembers how competitive he was, but also believes his competitive nature also never got in the way of treating others kindly.
“Johnny, he just loved football,” Griffis sighed. “He never let competition get in his way of loving other children.”
Naming each child, the church’s pastor, Howard Hudson told the Florida Baptist Witness he baptized all three of the older Mann children who died in the crash.
“The greatest thing is that I had baptized all of those kids,” Hudson said. “These kids were very regular and very faithful and all born into the family of God.”
Admitting it is a “tragic thing to lose that many kids out of one little church,” Hudson said they will, nonetheless, be comforted by the fact they are “faithful Christian kids.”
Hudson said he is aware of plans by the church and by the Santa Fe Baptist Association and the New River Baptist Association, which share churches in the community, to organize food and other comforts for the families involved.
Griffis, whose 11-year-old son, Dustin, was also a close friend of 13-year-old Johnny Mann, said she and her husband will continue to visit youth in their homes and at the church in order to offer comfort.
“We’re praying with them. We’re remembering all the good times,” Griffis said. “They all know they are in heaven.”
Funeral arrangements are unknown at this time.
Two funds have been set up to help the families with funeral and other expenses:
–The city of Lake Butler set up the Mann-Scott Family Fund at Community State Bank, 255 Southeast 6th St., Lake Butler, Fla. 32054. Donors also can call 386-496-3333.
–Donations can be sent to the Mann Family Memorial Fund at Mercantile Bank, 300 W. Main St., Lake Butler, Fla., 32054. Donors can call the bank at 386-496-2101.