The Colorado State Patrol says 13 people were in the 1999 Dodge Ram passenger van when it crashed into the rear of the semi on Thursday at 7:30 a.m. south of Kit Carson, about 130 miles southeast of Denver. State Patrol says the crash was on Highway 287 about 3.5 miles south of Kit Carson. The semi was stopped in the southbound lanes of Highway 287 when the van hit it.
State Patrol says the crash happened in a construction zone and after the impact, both vehicles remained together and kept going south on the highway.
State Patrol says Highway 287 was closed from 7:30 a.m. until around 2 p.m.
Kiowa County Sheriff's office spokesman Chris Sorensen said all of the children in the van were from a home for adopted and foster children run by 57-year-old Howard Mitchell, who died in the crash.
"Today is just a day of shock. These are not the kinds of things that we expect to happen in our part of the world," Sorensen said.
Sorensen identified the children who died as 11-year-old Austyn Ackinson, 4-year-old Tony Mitchell, 10-year-old Tayla Mitchell, 13-year-old Andy Dawson and 17-year-old Jeremy Franks.
Howard Mitchell is the father of the family and also a deputy with the Cheyenne County Sheriff's Department based in Cheyenne Wells, Colo.
The other seven people in the van were all teenagers or children and were taken to area hospitals.
State Patrol says 13-year-old Brandon Rollins and 3-year-old Beau McMillen were taken to Children's Hospital Colorado in Aurora. Beau was secured in a child safety seat, according to investigators.
Four other teens were taken to Swedish Medical Center in Denver: 16-year-old Daniel Ortega, 18-year-old TJ Mitchell, 15-year-old Robert Miller and 17-year-old Scott Fua.
The other passenger, 14-year-old William Palmer, was taken to Keefe Memorial Hospital with minor injuries. He was also wearing a seatbelt.
The driver of the semi, 26-year-old Jared Kauffman of Cheyenne, Wyo., was taken to Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs where he was treated and released with minor injuries.
Alcohol and drugs are not factors in the crash, according to State Patrol. Investigators are looking at speed as a factor.
9NEWS has learned the children were on their way to school in Eads, a 20-mile trip each way.
According to Kiowa County School District RE-1, most of the children attended school in the district which has a total student population of 170.
"Every student knows every other student," Sorensen said.
The school district has put together a counseling team to help students and staff members deal with the loss. The school district also told parents that they can contact the school district if their child is having difficulty dealing with the tragedy.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with them," reads the Eads School District website. "It is our understanding that the Mitchell family, with [whom] we are all close [to], has been affected, and our thoughts and prayers are with them."
"Howard was a wonderful man. This family has had over 35 kids in their care. They've all called Howard and Melody mom and dad," family friend Karen Nordquist said.
Next door to the Mitchell family home is the Trading Post restaurant, which Kay Pyskorski says her son owns.
Pyskorski says the Mitchells are a large family.
"Nice bunch of kids and nice people," she said.
Annette Weber manages the Trading Post and also knows the Mitchells.
"Unbelievable," Weber said. "[My] head can't grasp what happened."
Weber says some of the older children with the Mitchell family worked at the restaurant.
"We enjoyed all of them, even the little ones, and they would come in and visit the big ones when they were working," Weber said. "It's going to have a huge impact on the whole community."
Weber says the Mitchells started taking in foster children several years ago.
(KUSA-TV © 2011 Multimedia Holdings Corporation with The Associated Press)