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CHP Blames Driver Error, Not Wind, for Monks' Deaths

May 22, 1997|ANDREW BLANKSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Driver error--not high winds--was to blame for a van accident that killed six Thai Buddhist monks and a North Hollywood man, none of whom were wearing seat belts, a California Highway Patrol spokeswoman said Wednesday.

Seven other passengers were injured in the Monday night crash on Interstate 5 in the rural San Joaquin Valley.

The group of 14--including 11 monks described as "high rulers" from temples throughout Thailand--was returning to North Hollywood from the San Francisco Bay Area when the van's driver, Phramaha Wichanaow Chamsawas, lost control for an unknown reason, investigators said.

The driver had blamed the accident on a fierce windstorm that was blowing at the time.

The van traveled onto the edge of a dirt and grass median in the highway, CHP Officer Jennifer Willett said. The monk tried to swerve to the right, back onto the freeway, but the vehicle again hit the median, she said.

"That's when the van rolled," Willett said.

Twelve men were ejected as the van skidded across the median, flipping over numerous times west of the farm town of Mendota, the CHP spokeswoman said.

Those thrown from the vehicle were not wearing seat belts even though the van was equipped with enough to fit everyone, CHP investigators said.

"There were an adequate number of seat belts in the van, but only the driver and the right front passenger had them on," Willett said. "The driver and right front passenger had relatively minor injuries, and they had their seat belts on. The rest didn't."

No decision has been made on possible charges against the driver, Willett said.

On Wednesday, one monk remained in critical condition with head injuries at University Medical Center in Fresno.

"The doctors are watching very closely and are very concerned about his condition," hospital spokesman Mike Fleming said. "He's in pretty bad shape."

Two other monks, suffering from cuts, bruises and other injuries, were listed in serious condition. They are expected to be discharged from the hospital this week, Fleming said.

At the Wat Thai Buddhist Temple in North Hollywood, additional prayer services were planned for the critically injured monk, said the Venerable Supharp Sikkhasabho. He said that he expected the bodies of the monks to be delivered to the North Hollywood temple Friday and that they would be returned to Thailand.

The Thai group arrived May 5 in the United States, visiting North Hollywood and New York before traveling to Fremont, south of Oakland, in preparation for the June dedication of the Wat Buddhanusorn Temple there.

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