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13 Die in Labor Van Crash in Calif.

August 9, 1999

FIVE POINTS, Calif. (AP) _ A van loaded with farm workers slammed into a truck on a remote road Monday, killing 13 people and renewing worries about the safety of laborers who often cram into vehicles to get to work in the fields.

The 1983 Dodge Ram van smashed like an accordion on impact. Most of the 10 men and five women in the van were sitting without seat belts on two carpeted benches installed on each side, California Highway Patrol Officer Brian Yokley said.

It’s illegal in California to have anyone ride without proper seats and seat belts, but certified farm vehicles are excluded from the law. A sticker on the van said it was certified as recently as 1997, the highway patrol said.

Authorities were checking whether the certification was still valid and whether 14 passengers was too many, given the modifications inside.

The van’s driver was among those killed. Two other passengers were injured.

The truck driver, who was not injured, was turning his rig around on the two-lane road after parking on the shoulder to sleep, said CHP Officer Eric Erickson. The rig’s two trailers were empty.

The van ``couldn’t avoid hitting the tractor-trailer,″ Erickson said. ``Their brakes locked up.″

It wasn’t immediately clear how fast the van was traveling. The accident happened shortly after 5 a.m., just southeast of this tiny town in Fresno County. The laborers had just gotten off work sorting tomatoes in the fields, Erickson said.

In central California’s agricultural heartland, farm workers are often transported in crowded vans _ a problem that has contributed to a disproportionate traffic death rate among Hispanics in the area.

The highway patrol is so concerned that it has a team focused entirely on vehicles overcrowded with farm workers.

Six officers, dubbed ``Los Centinales″ _ or ``the Sentinels″ _ 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.″

Dona Portillo, 26, said the van involved in Monday’s crash was owned by her grandfather, Jose Lopez Rosas. He wasn’t in the van, but she said her father was among those killed.

Ms. Portillo said she and her mother also had been working in the fields, and the two women had taken a different ride home.

``He told my mom, `You go ahead and go with them, so you can rest and go to sleep,‴ Ms. Portillo said, sobbing.

One of the injured survivors, a 17-year-old girl, was in critical condition. The other, a man, was in serious condition.

Yolanda Cervantes, who organizes an annual driver safety awareness program in nearby Mendota, said most farm workers have no alternatives but to ride in crowded vans.

``Something has to change because every time you see these you don’t have one death, you have multiple deaths,″ Ms. Cervantes said. ``I’ve seen too many.″

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