A family of 14 from Tennessee is garnering quite the following after a successful first season of reality television stardom on TLC. The family, which is known for their musical talent and large brood, stars in the hit TLC series The Willis Family. However, the family’s story hasn’t always been so positive, and the family’s stardom was born out of tragedy and government corruption. The Willis family has shared the story of how the family came into their money and why their family unit is so important.
WGNTV spoke with the Willis family about their difficult past and the tragedy that forever changed their lives. In 1994, the Willis family patriarch Toby was building a family of his own. He had married wife Brenda and was busy with two young children of his own and another one on the way. However, his life would be turned upside down when he learned that six of his younger siblings had died in a terrible, fiery car crash after the family minivan hit a large object in the road.
Toby Willis came from a large family; he was the second of Reverend Scott and Janet Willis’ large brood of nine children. However, his large family would be devastated after a fatal van accident left six of the nine Willis children dead. The accident occurred in Wisconsin as Reverend Scott and his wife, Janet Willis, were on their way to Watertown, Wisconsin, to visit their son Dan and his family. However, while driving down near Milwaukee, a large piece of metal fell out of a truck. Reverend Scott was unable to miss the object and the van hit it, causing the rear fuel tank to explode.
Six of the Willis’ nine children were in the minivan during the wreck, and all six would pass away in the fiery crash. Recalling the incident, Reverend Scott says it happened so quickly that he doesn’t remember hearing any sounds from his children as they passed away instantly. Willis notes that five of the six children were sleeping when the accident happened and that they were told the children died instantly in the fiery crash. However, their 13-year-old son Ben did not die immediately and was covered in burns across his body. He would die a short time later in the hospital’s intensive care unit.
“When we hit the object, the rear exploded taking the car out of control. The fire was around us even before the van stopped sliding and I was yelling to get out of the car.”
At the time of the accident in 1994, the Chicago Tribune reports that the cause of the accident was immediately known, as the investigators found a large metal bracket lodged in the family van that had fallen off of a truck.
“Milwaukee sheriff’s police said they believe that when the 6-inch-diameter bracket was run over, it flipped up, pierced the van’s gas tank and caused gas to leak out. Seconds later, sparks caused as metal bracket dragged against the pavement ignited the van.”
While the story is tragic, the incident sparked an investigation that exposed widespread corruption in the State of Illinois. It was discovered through the Willis van crash accident that the driver of the truck from which the large metal bracket fell received his trucking license through government bribes.
“The Willis tragedy also exposed a political scandal in Illinois when it was learned the truck driver, whose rig lost that piece of metal, had bribed a state worker for his license. The resulting federal investigation and cover-up sent dozens of state employees to jail, including former Illinois Governor George Ryan. In August of 1999, the Willis’s won a $100 million out-of-court settlement.”
The family says that despite the tragedy, they have hope in the Lord and that they understand the importance of family. Therefore, it would come as no surprise that Toby and Brenda Willis now spend the majority of their time with their children expressing their creativity through music, sports, crafts, and dancing. The family is beloved by many TLC fans. The second season of The Willis Family kicked off last week.
Did you know the tragic history of the Willis family? What do you think about the family’s tragedy exposing corruption in the State of Illinois?
[Image via Instagram/ The Willis Clan]