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Willis Clan reality TV premiere deals with family's tragedy

It’s never been something they’ve shied from talking about. So it’s no surprise that in the first episode of the new reality TV series “The Willis Family,” members of the clan talk openly about the 1994 van crash that claimed the lives of six of the children of the Rev. Duane “Scott” Willis and Janet Willis.

“Everybody has things in their life that are sad,” the couple’s granddaughter Jessica Willis, 23, says on the show, which premieres Tuesday on the TLC cable network.

“My dad lost a number of his siblings in a car accident,” adds their grandson Jeremiah Willis, 22.

Their grandparents lived in Chicago at the time. They were on their way to visit one of their sons in Watertown, Wisconsin, with their six youngest children when they hit a piece of a taillight assembly that had fallen off a semitrailer rig.

The driver of the truck had, with the help of an intermediary, obtained his trucker’s license by bribing a corrupt worker at an Illinois secretary of state’s office licensing facility.

The collision caused the Willises’ minivan to ignite, killing the children, who ranged in age from 13 to just 6 weeks. Duane and Janet Willis survived the crash with severe burns.

The couple’s son Toby Willis — the father of Jessica, Jeremiah and 10 other kids who now form the Tennesee-based band the Willis Clan — wasn’t in the van.

The deadly crash came to be a symbol of the licenses-for-bribes scandal that led to the downfall of Gov. George Ryan, a former secretary of state.

The political aspect isn’t mentioned in the new TV series’ first episode, which will be shown at 9 p.m. Tuesday on TLC. Instead, the focus is on the personal aspects.

Jessica, the oldest, and some of her sisters read a poem that their father, Toby, wrote about his brother Ben, who was 13 when he died in the wreck.

“I have a little brother whose dream it was to fly. To spread his wings and, as the bird, soar across the open sky,” she begins.

Her sister, Jenny, 20, continues: “Whenever planes passed overheard he’d pause and lift his big brown eyes to watch heroic pilots dashing through the . . . boundless skies.”

Sister Jeanette, 19 picks it up: Like the pilots he admired, his code of courage was the same — bravely bailing out the door, his shattered world engulfed in flames,” then ending the reading with: “Buried in the history books we read about such fearless men but I have had the privilege of knowing one — my brother Ben.”

Jessica talks about how what happened in 1994 remains with the family today.

“The lessons that you learn from something like that really do affect your life, and they really go with you. The idea that not just things, but people, can be gone like that,” she says, snapping her fingers.

Jeremiah speaks about how their dad — already an adult when his siblings died — didn’t get to spend much time with his little brothers and sister.

“He feels like he wants to make up for that with his kids, and so he spends as much time as he can with us,” Jeremiah says.

In an interview, Jessica says she and her siblings — dancers, singers and musicians — are their grandparents’ legacy. She says the memories of the uncles and aunt who died “really inspire us to live every moment and be engaged in life, to go out and do things.

“You don’t know when the last chance is when you’re going to be able to do things,” she says, speaking from the family’s tour bus on the road in Nevada.

Another tragedy that befell the family also comes up in the first episode. About 10 years ago, a devastating fire destroyed the family’s Tennessee home — the home the Willis couple moved to with six surviving kids after leaving Chicago.

“I tell people, ‘I never shed a tear over that happening because I would feel terribly guilty that my mother-in-law went through a fire and lost six of her children, and I went through a fire and I didn’t lose any of mine,’” says Brenda Willis, the mother of the performers.

“We actually kind of just laughed and just were like, ‘Wow. Well, that’s that.’ It actually wasn’t a big deal,” says the third-oldest kid, Jenny. “Losing things can’t even compare close to losing people.”

This isn’t the first time the family has been on TV. The band competed on “America’s Got Talent” and had an earlier reality show on the Great American Country channel. This time, the focus is more on what life is like in a family of 14.