BARSTOW — A compact pickup truck crammed with 20 people apparently heading from Mexico to Los Angeles drifted off a freeway and crashed into a drainage culvert near here early Wednesday, killing 12 passengers and sending eight others to hospitals with serious injuries.
The California Highway Patrol said the driver apparently fell asleep at the wheel after driving all night from the Mexican border town of Nogales, Ariz.
Most of the victims were flung from the wreckage and scattered across the rock-strewn desert in what the CHP described as one of the most deadly single-vehicle accidents in the state's history.
"There were bodies on top of bodies, people in pain lying on top of people lying in pain," said motorist Robert Silver, who stopped at the scene moments after the crash occurred.
Of the four people who had been wedged into the cab of the 1981 Toyota pickup, only the driver survived. Nine of the 16 passengers in the bed of the pickup, which was covered by a camper shell, were killed.
A CHP investigator said there were so many people in the vehicle that the weight of the human cargo may have been greater than the weight of the vehicle itself. He said that although the truck was approximately 1,700 pounds above the manufacturer's gross vehicle weight rating, that in itself was not a violation of state law.
However, because a driver is responsible for the safety of his passengers, the CHP said it would seek at least 12 counts of vehicular manslaughter against the driver.
Among the seven men and five women who died was a pregnant woman. Of the survivors, at least one was from El Salvador. That passenger, Alejandro Enriquez, 24, told Associated Press after he was released from Barstow Community Hospital that the group of immigrants met after entering the United States. He said that as the group grew to 20, each contributed $50 toward a trip to Los Angeles.
The CHP said the truck was registered to a Los Angeles man, Elder Ruado Mejia Ordonez. Officers said the driver of the vehicle, who did not have a driver's license, identified himself as Aidan B. Ordonez. Whether they are related, or perhaps even the same man, was not immediately clear.
Elder Ordonez was cited after a traffic accident last year for driving without a license. CHP investigators said they had no idea whether the group of immigrants had entered the country illegally.
"That's not our area of expertise," Pitt said.
Investigators said the group apparently left Nogales about 7 p.m. Tuesday. CHP Lt. Don Pitt said some of the immigrants were headed for Los Angeles International Airport for flights elsewhere.
Just before 6 a.m. Wednesday, the truck drifted off the freeway, veered nearly 200 feet across a stretch of rocks, sand and dirt and and crashed into an earthen culvert that crosses beneath the freeway about 10 feet below pavement level. On impact, the vehicle buckled at a 45-degree angle.
"There were bodies everywhere," said Silver, who used a roadside call box to summon help. "Most of them were making some kind of sounds. I was holding hands, trying to keep them still. They were very calm."
Of the 16 passengers in the back of the pickup--who under California law were not required to wear seat belts because of the camper shell--six were ejected and killed. Three others who died in the back of the truck and three killed in the cab had to be removed from the wreckage with hydraulically powered rescue equipment.
It took the first emergency crews about 10 minutes to reach the scene. They were from a San Bernardino County Fire Department station in Barstow.
"This was not a good place for a crash," department spokesman Bill Peters said. "There's no three-minute response time out here."
Silver said he got the impression that none of the passengers knew each other because none were asking about the condition of the others.
The driver, he said, was conscious after the accident and asked Silver to help him open the door. It was jammed, and the man stayed inside, alongside his dead passengers, until firefighters arrived.
Pitt said the lack of skid marks indicated the strong possibility that the driver fell asleep.
"Had it not been for the number of fatalities, this would have been the basic accident we have out here, day after day--people falling asleep on the road, " Pitt said.
There were no immediate indications of mechanical failure, according to CHP Officer Steve Hobart.
Three of the injured were brought by helicopter to the San Bernardino County Medical Center in San Bernardino. They are Jose Rosales, 20, listed in stable condition with a broken collarbone; Sonia Lopez, about 18, in stable condition with pelvic and leg fractures, and an unidentified woman, about 20, in critical condition with severe head and abdominal injuries.