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Accounts differ in fatal crash

Two migrant workers say the truck, not their bus, crossed the center line.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 2001


AVON PARK -- Javier Hernandes, 18, was riding in the same noisy bus that had ferried him so often along the rural back roads of Central Florida.

Here he was, again, in a pre-dawn commute Wednesday with other migrant workers, many of them slumped and sleeping across the padded bench seats, most of them united by similar circumstances and a goal: to send money home to their families in Mexico.

One moment, Javier Hernandes was hearing the drone of the bus, a sound as monotonous as the days that have piled up since he moved from Mexico two years ago to support his aging parents, who live in a home with a dirt floor in Vera Cruz.

The next moment he was in hell.

Out of the fog along State Road 62 near Wauchula, he could see a semitrailer truck heading straight for the bus. Sitting two rows from the front, he braced himself.

"I wasn't thinking anything when the impact came," Hernandes said Thursday through an interpreter. "We were thrown."

The bus and its passengers were doused in the brown, foul-smelling liquid fertilizer that had been strapped in containers on the truck's flatbed trailer.

With broken glass in his right eye, Javier Hernandes looked to the back of the bus for his cousin, 30-year-old Eduardo Hernandes, who had come to the United States to make money for his wife and three children in Mexico. Eduardo was fine. At the last moment, he had leapt across the aisle, away from his seat on the left side, where the truck had shorn off the bus' skin like a crude can opener.

"We got out of the bus," Javier Hernandes recalled. "I was shaking with fear."

The account by the two cousins came as authorities struggled Thursday to cobble together the identities of the six men who died on the bus and the 17 others who received minor injuries or were unhurt. Some relatives of the dead had not been notified as of late Thursday afternoon, and correct addresses were hard to come by -- a circumstance that offered evidence of their unsettled lives.

Migrant workers from Mexico typically arrive in Florida in September or October to pick oranges, leave in May to pick other crops in states such as North Carolina and Ohio, then return in the fall, said Father Jose Gonzales, a priest who runs the migrant ministry for the Catholic Diocese of Venice.

"It's a hard life," Gonzales said.

The story of Javier and Eduardo Hernandes is notable for another reason. They say the truck that struck the bus edged across the center line -- an account at odds with that of the Florida Highway Patrol, which found that the bus had caused the accident by crossing the line.

Javier re-enacted the accident several times using two television remotes in the home of the relative in Avon Park with whom he and Eduardo stay. Each time, it was the truck that crossed over the line. Both men said they were not interviewed by troopers.

The FHP's findings are preliminary and will not be final until the investigation is complete in about 60 days, FHP Sgt. Vent Crawford said. He said investigators came to the conclusion that the bus veered across the center line based on witness statements and markings on the pavement, which indicate the impact occurred in the eastbound lane -- the truck's side of the highway.

Troopers interviewed other survivors who were in the bus, but they said they were asleep at the time, Crawford said. "Sometimes the whole story doesn't come out at first," the sergeant said, "but someday it will."

The driver of the truck, Laddy V. Harrell of Plant City, could not be reached Thursday for comment. On Wednesday, as Harrell somberly returned to the accident scene, his boss at Chemical Dynamics of Plant City praised the way the veteran driver guided his rig into an orange grove to avoid hitting other cars.

The list of the dead and injured finally released late Thursday offers a broad profile of the migrant work force. Most were in their late teens or 20s; one was 41. Three men living in one house were all dead. So were two men living in another house. Two other men apparently were brothers; one died.

They all lived in Avon Park, including the driver, Dario Martinez, who was born in Mexico City and has been a Florida resident since 1989. He is survived by a wife and three children, ages 6, 7 and 9.

Father Gonzales said it is a common practice in the region for many migrant workers to live at one address, each paying rent separately in an arrangement that is more profitable for the landlord.

It is also common for younger men who have stronger roots in Mexico to be sent home to be buried, he said. Also, the Miami-based Mexican Consulate was working with local authorities to make funeral arrangements, and one local migrant was collecting money for burial costs for the men.

"It's hard for the community," Father Gonzales said. "But these people live very hard lives and they deal with it with pain, but at the same time with hope. Their faith helps them cope."

Javier Hernandes predicts he will be filled with fear the next time he boards a bus for the fields, but he has no choice, he said.

"Here, you have everything you want, but I can't speak English and I'm not accustomed to the life," he said. "I miss Mexico. With God's grace, I'll be one more year here and I can go home."

- Times photographer John Pendygraft contributed to this report.

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