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13 Die in Labor Van Crash in Calif.

August 10, 1999

FIVE POINTS, Calif. (AP) _ Dora Portillo was one of the lucky ones. So was her mom. After a long night of picking and sorting tomatoes, they caught their own ride back to Fresno.

Ms. Portillo’s father, Juan Avila, was among the 15 people who piled into a 1983 Dodge Ram after working the same shift. He never made it home.

The van slammed into a tractor-trailer before dawn Monday, killing all but two of the passengers. It split in half across its front grill and buckled upon impact.

``He told my mom, `You go ahead and go with them, so you can rest and go to sleep,‴ said Ms. Portillo, 26, sobbing as she explained how there was not enough room in her friend’s car for both her parents.

The accident happened shortly after 5 a.m., just southeast of this tiny town in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. The truck driver was turning his rig around on a two-lane road after parking on the shoulder to sleep, said California Highway Patrol Officer Eric Erickson. The rig’s two trailers were empty.

The van was going at least 55 mph, and ``couldn’t avoid hitting the tractor-trailer,″ Erickson said. ``Their brakes locked up.″

The skid marks were 50 to 80 feet long, he said.

The truck driver, Adrian Erazo, 44, was not injured.

The van’s driver, whose identity wasn’t released, was among those killed. He didn’t have a license and had had his driving privileges revoked because of several violations, Erickson said.

The driver, from Fresno, had been cited for not wearing a seatbelt, not having a license, and was once arrested for drunken driving. Erickson said there was no conviction for the DUI, but it wasn’t clear why.

One of the injured survivors, Lucia Gonzalez, was in critical condition with internal bleeding after surgery Monday, hospital officials said. The other, Gilberto Piedra Navarrete, 42, was in stable condition with two broken legs.

The Mexican government agency Notimex said the Mexican consulate in Fresno confirmed that the 13 dead farmworkers were Mexicans. No one was available at the consulate Monday afternoon for further comment.

In central California’s agricultural heartland, farm workers often have no alternative to traveling in crowded vans _ a problem that has contributed to a disproportionate traffic death rate among Hispanics in the area.

Most of the 10 men and five women in the van were sitting without seat belts on two carpeted benches, said CHP Officer Brian Yokley.

It’s illegal in California to have anyone ride without proper seats and seat belts, but certified farm vehicles are excluded from the law. The van _ owned by Ms. Portillo’s grandfather, Jose Lopez Rosas _ received its last annual certification in 1997, but had not been certified since, the highway patrol said.

``Something has to change because every time you see these you don’t have one death, you have multiple deaths,″ said Yolanda Cervantes, who organizes an annual driver safety awareness program in nearby Mendota. ``I’ve seen too many.″

The highway patrol has a team of six officers dubbed ``Los Centinales″ _ or ``the Sentinels″ _ who focus exclusively on vehicles overcrowded with farm workers.

They have spent the past three summers patrolling before dawn, stopping trucks and vans of farm workers to check whether the vehicles are complying with state codes.

``We stop those vehicles that are obviously overloaded ... the back end is sagged down because of the weight of the people,″ said Sgt. Jorge Chaidez, who runs the unit out of the highway patrol’s office in Fresno. ``I’ve seen up to 22 people in a small van.″

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