WEATHERFORD, Tex. — Fourteen Los Angeles residents, 12 of them children, were killed in a fiery death trap Sunday when a tractor-trailer slammed into the van they were riding in.
The accident occurred as the van was pulling onto an interstate highway six miles west of this small Texas city outside of Ft. Worth. The force of the collision sent the van careening 500 feet down the roadway, where it burst into flames.
Besides those killed, four others in the van were injured. The driver, identified by the Texas Highway Patrol as Claudia Funches, 47, of Los Angeles, was listed in critical condition at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. Another woman and two children were taken to hospitals in Weatherford and Ft. Worth.
The driver of the tractor-trailer was also injured, but not seriously, authorities said.
The accident was one of the worst in Texas history, while other collisions around the state made it one of the bloodiest days ever on the state's highways. In all, 31 people were killed in three separate crashes.
The Weatherford crash occurred about 9:30 a.m. CDT. According to the Highway Patrol, the 1977 Dodge van was on the side of Interstate 20 after apparently stalling. Officials said Funches, after restarting the car, was apparently moving onto the roadway when the vehicle was hit by the truck driven by Richie Ware, 37, of Arlington, Tex.
Almost immediately, the van burst into flames as the force of the impact pushed it onto the highway median after striking a guardrail, leaving a trail of clothing and twisted metal.
One of the 14 who died was tossed from the van. The others died inside.
The first to arrive at the scene was Mark Baker, a member of the nearby Greenwood Fire Department. He said he could see smoke and fire billowing from the median from two miles away. Baker said the truck driver pulled Funches and two children from the van and then apparently tried to douse the fire with two fire extinguishers.
Baker said he poured 300 gallons of water on the burning vehicle before other fire engines arrived. He said he was unaware there were others inside the wreckage until he was told by another firefighter.
Mike Cox, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, said truck drivers stopped and helped a boy who stuck his head out a window, screaming for help because he was on fire. Cox said the truck drivers threw water on the boy, but the effort was in vain.
The last of the bodies was pulled from the wreckage at 4:40 p.m., after the top of the van had been cut open by firefighters using hydraulic tools.
Cox said members of the National Transportation Safety Board were headed to the scene, and a state accident reconstruction team was also en route. He said the state team is expected to use "state-of-the-art" technology to reconstruct the crash, including a laser-imaging machine that would visually re-create the accident.
The wreckage of the van will be transported to Ft. Worth, where the Tarrant County medical examiner will examine the corpses.
"It's been just an extraordinarily bloody day here in Texas," Cox said. "It's particularly bad to see so many children die."
"This is one of the worst I've ever been to," said State Trooper Bobby Hart, who reported that all of those in the van were from Los Angeles.
Texas authorities gave South Main Street as the Los Angeles address of Claudia Funches. Members of her family, gathered inside her apartment, declined to talk to the news media.
State Trooper B.J. Moore said officials believe that the van passengers were going to a family reunion in Vicksburg, Miss.
In addition to the Weatherford crash, 11 people were killed when a tractor-trailer slammed broadside into a pickup truck near the West Texas town of Snyder.
Three adults were in the pickup cab and 12 children were in its open bed when the accident occurred at 4:15 a.m. CDT. All of the dead were related, Cox said.
Another six died in a crash near Ballinger, also in West Texas. That also involved a tractor-trailer rig.
Special correspondent Henderson reported from Weatherford; staff writer Kennedy reported from Los Angeles. Staff writer Nicholas Riccardi also contributed to this story.
Van Crash Victims
On Sunday night, the Texas Department of Public Safety identified the Los Angeles residents killed or injured in a fiery van crash. Investigators said they did not know the addresses of most of them.
* Those who died:
Trevor Simpson, 10; Nicholas Simpson, 9; Rochelle Wince, 2; Rochelle Cummings, 1; Jovanea Rivas, 1; Henriella Funches, 30; Lavar Funches, 7; Latricia Funches, 6; Danisha Funches, 5; Darren Funches, 5; Eric Bell, 7 months; Katherine Deal, 28; Lashawn Wingfield, 11, and Michael Johnson, 10.
* Those who were hurt:
Claudia Funches, 47; her daughter, Nicole (age unavailable); Greg Bell, 4, and Ricky Wince, 4.