ATLANTA (Reuters) - Lidiane Carmo remains hospitalized and unable to walk without assistance more than a week after a series of horrific crashes littered a dark Florida highway shrouded by smoke and fog.
But the Brazilian-born 15-year-old from suburban Atlanta managed to laugh in a recent telephone conversation with her church pastor, a small wonder given her medical issues and the fact that she was the only member of her immediate family to survive the fiery January 29 collisions on Interstate 75.
Lidiane's parents, Jose Carmo Jr, 43, and Adriana Carmo, 39, as well as her sister, Leticia, 17, all died as they traveled home in a van from a church conference in Orlando.
Her uncle, Edsom Carmo, who was driving the van, and his girlfriend, Rose DeSilva, were also killed in the pileups that left a total of 11 people dead.
Authorities continue to investigate the crashes, which involved more than a dozen cars and trucks and sent an additional 20 people to a local hospital with injuries.
The pre-dawn crashes began about 30 minutes after the Florida Highway Patrol reopened a 14-mile stretch of Interstate 75 that had been enveloped by fog and smoke from a suspicious marsh fire.
In Georgia, fellow church members and neighbors are rallying to help Lidiane Carmo and raise at least $50,000 to cover funeral costs for her deceased family members, the Reverend Arao Amazonas told Reuters.
No funeral date has been set. The bodies will be flown back to the family's native Brazil for burial, said Amazonas, a pastor of the International Church of the Restoration. The Carmo family attended the church, and Jose Carmo served as a pastor.
"The family was strongly involved with the church. They were together all the time," Amazonas said.
Lidiane wants to remain in the United States, where she has lived since she was 2, he said.
The pastor said the teenager was expected to remain hospitalized for at least three more weeks in Gainesville, Florida, where she is recuperating from internal bleeding, a broken arm and two broken ribs.
After she is released, she will return to Cobb County, Georgia, and live with an uncle, Amazonas said.
Church members initially were concerned whether that would be possible, as the teen's family had overstayed their visas and were in the United States illegally, Amazonas said.
But immigration officials quickly put to rest those fears, saying last week that Lidiane was not in danger of being deported.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with Miss Lidiane Carmo as she deals with the tragic loss of her family," U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez said in a statement.
"ICE's stated priorities include convicted criminals, immigration fugitives, repeat immigration law violators and recent border crossers."
Immigration attorney Richard Ruth in Gainesville said Lidiane likely would be eligible for a deportation waiver from the U.S. Attorney General due to extreme hardship.
Since her connection to Brazil is tenuous, she also could make a strong case for achieving legal status, Ruth said.
"Clearly in this situation, I would certainly think she has a very decent argument for legalization at some point," Ruth told Reuters.
The high school Lidiane, a freshman, attended with her older sister already has raised $6,000 for the family through contributions and the sale of baked goods and T-shirts, said principal Ed Wagner. Leticia was a junior at Sprayberry High School, which held a memorial service for her last week.
"It's amazing to me the support we have received," Wagner said.
Amazonas said he was encouraged by Lidiane Carmo's demeanor during their recent phone conversation.
"She talked to me, she laughed," he said. "She said she wanted to drink water. She wanted to eat barbecue. We were happy to see the way she is feeling so far."
The teen and the friends and extended family members who are with her at the hospital declined an interview through a hospital spokeswoman.
Lidiane's tight-knit church of about 120 people is slowly coming to grips with the sudden deaths of five of its members.
"People are trying to understand," Amazonas said. "They understand that even in the Bible good people die in a very hard way and difficult manner."
"If God allowed that to happen, he had some purpose that our natural minds can't understand."
Additional reporting by Barbara Liston; Editing by Colleen Jenkins