Josh Stanley, of Callahan, Florida, suspected something was wrong when he called his wife, Amber, early on Monday and got no answer.
Josh, 25, had just landed in Pennsylvania for a week-long work training while Amber, 24, and their two children headed to a family friend’s home in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. He tells PEOPLE he was calling to check in with his wife just before 1 a.m. local time, knowing she and the children were on the road. He never heard from her again.
Hours later, Josh got the tragic news from a South Carolina Highway Patrol officer: Amber and their children — Jack, 4, and 2-year-old Autumn — died in a car accident. They’d been traveling north on Highway 95 in Orangeburg County when the family’s 2011 Kia Soul hit an alligator, swerved into a tree and caught fire, authorities tell PEOPLE.
“I broke down,” Stanley says of the moment he got the news. “They were my life. Everything we had was built around each other. We were building our family up. I was just crying.”
Stanley immediately flew home to Florida, where he has been struggling to come to terms with the deaths.
“It comes in waves,” he tells PEOPLE of the pain. “I’ll think it didn’t happen, then it hits me that I’m never gonna hug my kids or kiss my wife again. I’ve been on auto-mode. I haven’t really processed it.”
He adds: “My brain keeps playing tricks on me. Out of the corner of my eye, I’ll see somebody that has the same haircut as Amber and I’ll turn and be like, ‘Oh, it’s my wife.’ But obviously it’s not her. She’s not gonna be here.”
Stanley says he’s been leaning on his friends and family for support, especially as he makes funeral arrangements for his wife and children. He and Amber were married for two and a half years, and looked forward to their future with their children.
“I keep thinking I hear [Jack] or see him. My phone will go off and my heart will skip a beat because I think it’s Amber calling me. But it’s not. Amber was always there. She’d help [anyone] out no questions asked,” he tells PEOPLE through tears.
“I’m gonna miss how happy [Autumn] was. She’d just smile and say, ‘I love you too,’ and give me a big hug. She was always so happy. As far as the future, I have no idea. Our future was built around our family. But now I don’t have anyone left.”