FORT PIERCE, Fla. - The congregants of a close-knit Haitian church gathered Monday around Nicolas Alexis, hoping to learn what happened to 18 friends and loved ones who had been expected to return that morning from a late Palm Sunday service.

Alexis described how he frantically tried to check who was alive after their overloaded church van crashed in the darkness in rural southwest Florida.

Three men who had been seated near the 57-year-old died. Alexis said he kicked out a window to escape.

"I just know there is a God," said Alexis, sitting in a chair dragged outside the Independent Haitian Assembly of God to ease the pain in his bandaged leg and fractured ribs.

The crash early Monday in Glades County, about 60 miles from the Fort Pierce church, killed eight people. Alexis, the church's pastor, and eight others were injured.

The van crashed after the driver apparently missed a stop sign at an unlit T-intersection surrounded by farmland, sending the vehicle across four lanes and plunging through tall grasses into a shallow canal.

Eighteen people were in the 15-seat-capacity van when it crashed about 12:30 a.m. Monday, about halfway through their trip home.

"That's a very steep embankment, and they kind of did a nosedive," said Lt. Gregory S. Bueno of the Florida Highway Patrol.

The crash killed the male driver and seven passengers, four male and three female, troopers said. The Highway Patrol was not releasing names, pending notification of their families.

The agency identified 10 other passengers taken to four hospitals. Among them was a 4-year-old child who was not in a car seat, Bueno said. The child was taken to a hospital and later discharged.

The church's pastor, 57-year-old Esperant Lexine, was hospitalized in critical condition.