Christian dietitian and church founder Gwen Shamblin Lara, her actor husband, Joe Lara, and five others are presumed dead after a small private plane crashed into a lake near Nashville, Tenn., on Saturday, authorities said.
The aircraft was headed to Palm Beach International Airport when it slammed into Percy Priest Lake, in Smyrna, Tenn., about 12 miles east of Nashville, local officials said.
By late Saturday night, Rutherford County crews said they were shifting operations from rescue to recovery, Rutherford County Fire Rescue Capt. Joshua Sanders said at a news briefing, as there appeared to be no survivors.
The other passengers were identified Saturday night by Rutherford County officials: Jennifer Martin, David Martin, Jessica Walters, Jonathan Walters and Brandon Hannah, Shamblin Lara’s son-in-law. All victims were reportedly members of Shamblin Lara’s church and residents of Brentwood, Tenn.
Dive teams from local law enforcement and emergency agencies investigated the debris field – about half a mile wide – where they found human remains and pieces of the plane Sunday, local authorities said.
The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration are investigating the cause of the crash.
The aircraft belonged to Shamblin Lara, 66, founder of the Remnant Fellowship Church and author of the bestseller “The Weigh Down Diet,” a weight-loss method that aims to “turn away from the love of food and towards the love of God,” according to her website.
William Joseph “Joe” Lara, 58, began his career as a model before landing the lead role in “Tarzan in Manhattan” in 1989. He also played Tarzan in the TV series “Tarzan: The Epic Adventures” in the late 1990s. He produced the series as well, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
The couple, based in Brentwood, Tenn., had registered the small aircraft through their company, JL&GL Productions, according to local media reports.
Shamblin Lara’s daughter, Elizabeth Shamblin Hannah, who was not on the flight, sent a text to Remnant families on Saturday, asking for prayers and saying that the plane “had to go down for a controlled, quick landing,” News Channel 5 Nashville reported.
“GOD IS IN CONTROL, and we will not stop moving forward with WHAT GOD WANTS with this church,” the text message said.
Hannah’s husband, Brandon, was aboard the plane.
In a statement Sunday, the church said it had lost some of its “finest and most loving” leaders in a “horrible tragedy.” It described Shamblin Lara as a “gentle, and selfless mother and wife” who lived “every day laying down her own life to ensure that others could find a relationship with God.”
“As far as Remnant Fellowship Church and Weigh Down Ministries are concerned, Michael Shamblin and Elizabeth Shamblin Hannah, Gwen’s two children, and the church leadership intend to continue the dream that Gwen Shamblin Lara had of helping people find a relationship with God.”
According to her website, Shamblin Lara experienced substantial weight gain while she was in college and by studying “God’s perfect design and naturally thin eaters,” she said she was “permanently” set free from being overweight and dieting.
She founded Weight Down in 1992, which she has described as a “faith-based weight loss” method that she said has helped thousands of people dealing with excess weight and addictions such as smoking and alcohol abuse.
Critics have compared the church to a cult, pointing at remarks made by Shamblin Lara about thin Jews in concentration camps and denying that genetics play a role in obesity, according to the Clarion Ledger.
“How in the Holocaust did you have all these people getting down real skinny? They ate less food,” she said in an interview with CNN’s Larry King in 2008, News Channel 5 Nashville reported.
The Remnant Fellowship, founded in 1999, reportedly has more than 1,500 members in 150 congregations worldwide, according to the Clarion Ledger.
Shamblin Lara’s website says she was deeply involved in the church’s activities, including giving sermons twice a week and counseling “thousands of people” on a wide range of topics, including finance and parenting.