The Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch is grieving after the Saturday loss of eight children deeply connected to the ranch. But it is not the first time the Reeltown community, in particular those connected to Reeltown schools, have come together to grieve.
“It’s another tragedy where we come together to get through it,” former Reeltown High School principal Dr. Tom Cochran said. “We have lost someone close each of the last nine years, a student, a staff member or someone close to us. This is year 10. I thought we would make it this year — then this.”
Residents of the Girls Ranch were returning from a beach vacation, one of two vacations the ranch takes with its residents each year. It was a trip current Reeltown High School principal Cliff Maddox had to agree to.
“I had to sign permission slips for several of them,” Maddox said. “They were involved in summer school. I needed to do it so they could make up their school work; it wasn’t to go on the trip.”
Four of the “sisters” of the Girls Ranch, the 4-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter of Tallapoosa County Sheriffs’ Girls Ranch director Candice Gulley and two of Gulley’s nephews died in the Saturday accident on Interstate 65 in Butler County while coming home.
Sunday Maddox found himself leading a session to allow students, staff and the community to start the grieving process instead of speaking with students about their school work.
“There is no protocol for this,” Maddox said. “We want to acknowledge no one is hurting alone here today. This is kind of a start to the process. Everyone grieves in their own way. Everyone heals differently.”
Maddox wants everyone to know residents at the Girls Ranch are more than just residents.
“The community has always supported these students,” Maddox said. “These weren’t Girls Ranch girls here. They were Reeltown students.”
Alabama Sheriffs Youth Ranches CEO Michael Smith said several vehicles from the Girls Ranch were coming back from the beach vacation. “We had two vans and a chase vehicle several miles apart,” Smith said. “The lead van was driven by Candice. It had nine people in it when the accident happened. Unfortunately we had eight fatalities.”
Authorities say wet conditions likely contributed to the accident. “A vehicle likely hydroplaned on the bridge near mile marker 138,” Butler County coroner Wayne Garlock said. “During the accident an 18-wheeler also became involved in the pileup.
Gulley was pulled from the vehicle by the driver of an 18-wheeler, according to Garlock. The driver and others at the scene were unable to pull the young people because of fire and intense heat.
Smith visited with Gulley Saturday at Baptist South Hospital where she is being treated. Despite losing her children and nephews, Smith said Gulley was thinking of the girls who made it back to the ranch Saturday night.
“She can barely talk,” Smith said. “She is in critical condition. She told me to tell my girls, ‘I love them.’”
One of those girls shared her memories of the trip and the ranch. Her identity can not be revealed as she is in state custody through the Alabama Department of Human Resources. She graduated from Reeltown High School last month and is going to start college next month. The teenager described the ranch and its residents and staff as home and family.
“When people hear about the ranch, they usually assume the girls have done something wrong to be there, but that is not the case,” she said. “These girls I know have been through so much and they were such wonderful, strong, kind, young ladies.”
Smith said the girls come from a variety of backgrounds.
“Some of our kids are abandoned, abused and neglected but some are just from homes in crisis where there are addictions or poverty and (parents) can’t afford to take care of these children so they come here,” Smith said. “We have a little girl who is now 14.”
Smith said that when the girl was born, her grandparents adopted her because her mother was not fit to take care of her. But as the responsibility of raising a teen-ager grew more difficult, they sent her to the ranch.
“The grandparents are able to come visit,” Smith said.
Tallapoosa County sheriff Jimmy Abbett and others helped notify those traveling in the second van of the tragedy when they arrived back at the Girls Ranch Saturday night as they didn’t see or know the extent of the accident.
“The second group came in about 8 p.m.,” Abbett said. “We had put together a group of local ministers and counselors to meet with them. It was our indication that they didn’t know the extent of the accident. They knew there was an accident. They didn’t know that their ‘brothers and sisters’ had died.
“When the news was broken to them by one of the house parents, it was a very emotional thing.”
The oldest “sister” at the Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch remembered her other “sisters.”
“It was my privilege and honor to be able to be called their big sister,” she said. “I’ve been the oldest girl at the ranch for a little while now. I have been their big sister. I have been the one to smack them with a sandal when they needed it. I have some really great memories with these girls,” she said. “I’m sure we all do too. I loved them oh so much.”
The ranch’s Christian environment provides solace to Smith and others as to where the eight children who died Saturday currently are.
“I know we can rest on the fact we know they are in heaven,” the oldest ‘sister’ said. “What the ranch does is teach us about faith, who to put our faith in and who we get our strength from. These girls that are left here are strong. I’m so thankful for all that I have.”
The big sister is unsure what will happen going forward but will lean on those at the Girls Ranch.
“I’ve lost a lot of family throughout my entire life,” she said. “I have been prepared for a lot of situations but nothing could have prepared me for this. It’s hard because every time I get close to somebody, they get taken. This is a wonderful family. I will continue to be here for the girls. I know they touched so many lives while they were here.”
The “big sister” admitted she has many questions.
“I have been sitting here wondering why? Why us?” she said. “We have already been through so much. That is why we are here at the ranch. That question is not going to be answered and we are going to be left with it. But we need to find hope, strength and faith in the fact that we have each other and we have love. That is something we have the answer to. We know we have love. We know they loved us. We know we loved them.
“We know they are in a place where they are blissful,” she said. “They are joyful. They are jubilous. I’m thankful they are in heaven.”
Smith said Gully’s children were like the girls at the ranch — family.
“They embraced that little boy here,” Smith said. “He was a brother to them as they were sisters to him. There was not a time they weren’t playing with him, having a good time. The girls learn true family values here by being in a true Christian family.”
Smith said he spent part of the night looking at videos of Gulley’s son riding sheep at a rodeo and looking at photographs of the girls he got to have lunch with earlier in the week at Acme Oyster Company, a place chosen by the girls.
“We had a great time there,” Smith said. “We had 19 people there with the house parents too. I felt like the blessed one there with all the girls laughing and smiling. These girls have all had trauma in their lives. Sitting there you would never know it but now there is more trauma in their lives.”
The girls had lunch at the boys ranch in Baldwin County Wednesday and on Thursday, Chambers County Sheriff Sid Lockhart took the girls to Tacky Jacks for lunch.
“We took every one of them,” Lockhart said. “The girls picked it. That is where they wanted to go.” Lockhart was supposed to be traveling to Phoenix, AZ this week but canceled the trip to be at the place he has been a part of for decades.
“I helped put carpet in the first two buildings when we first built (the ranch),” Lockhart said. “I get here quite a bit. Anytime they need help with something they call me.”
Sunday Lockhart was at the Girls Ranch again, this time cooking and sharing another meal with the “family.” We have to show them we love them,” Harmon said.
Tomorrow, the family at the Girls Ranch will move on. Funerals are to come and so are the expenses that go with that. Lake Martin Area United Way executive director Sharon Fuller is already working on that. “We have set a way to donate on our website,” Fuller said. “We will be here to support the Girls Ranch in any way we can.”
A link for donating can be found at www.unitedwaylakemartin.org.
Smith is struggling with his own emotions being connected to his ‘work family’ but already has an idea. “The tragedy we face today, I don’t know how we would do it without God,” Smith said. “I’m at peace with where those girls are now. I’m at peace because I told those girls I loved them before I left them on Wednesday. I’m so happy that I was able to spend time with them this week.
“What we do is depend on God to get us through this. There is one thing I know, those eight children who passed away all knew God. I ask that y’all keep us in your prayers. Keep Candice in your prayers. By the grace of God she was saved and able to be pulled from that vehicle. Prayer for our girls who are still here and give them all the support you possibly can.”
The “big sister” of the Girls Ranch said “I will never ever take life for granted. It is so precious. It is so important. Love is the biggest thing. I loved my little sisters. I loved them so much.”
The National Transportation Safety Board has said it is sending a team to Butler County to assist in the investigation of the accident.