ST. LOUIS

- A van carrying 11 men returning from a California religious gathering careened off a southern Illinois freeway and overturned several times yesterday, killing five of them and sending six to hospitals, authorities said.

Bruce Bowen called yesterday's crash on Interstate 70 west of Vandalia among the worst he's seen in his 13 years as coroner of Illinois' Fayette County. Nine of the men were thrown from the 15-passenger van as it tumbled over and over. Those who suffered fatal injuries died at the scene.

"It was total disaster," he said. "There were just bodies everywhere."

Bowen said the names of the men who died couldn't be released as of yesterday afternoon, because he and other authorities were just starting to notify relatives.

The van's driver, who was among the six survivors, was conscious and still behind the wheel when emergency crews arrived, though it was unclear whether he was able to offer investigators any insight into why the 2002 Dodge vehicle with Maryland license plates went out of control shortly before 10 a.m.

Authorities said no other vehicles were involved in the crash.