Crime - Sacto 911

CHP confirms 5 farmworkers died in foggy San Joaquin County crash

Eriberto Romero, who was at work in a farm near the accident that killed five in San Joaquin County.
Eriberto Romero, who was at work in a farm near the accident that killed five in San Joaquin County. hamezcua@sacbee.com

STOCKTON – The scene that emerged from the fog Tuesday morning was a gruesome one: a gold van upside down with passengers hanging from its crushed doors and shattered windows, a red pickup truck with two injured people inside, gasoline puddles and personal belongings scattered on the muddy shoulder of Highway 4.

Five men died there, at the intersection of Highway 4 and Van Allen Road, in a violent collision about 6:55 a.m.

According to the California Highway Patrol, the van, carrying six people, was heading north, crossing Highway 4 from Van Allen Road, when it was broadsided by the pickup.

Three survived – the two people in the red pickup truck that was traveling east bound on Highway 4, and one farm worker who was riding in the van from Stockton to a day in the field, pruning grape vines. None of the men involved in the collision were immediately identified, though a spokeswoman with the Sacramento Mexican Consulate confirmed that some were Mexican nationals.

Farmington's volunteer firefighters, the first to the scene, said it was ugly, and knew immediately they would need to work fast.

"We immediately began to triage the victims," Farmington Fire Department spokesman Capt. Jeff Briggs said.

Moises Cortes, a foreman at a farm off Highway 4, said he rushed to the scene to help firefighters speak to the wounded man who survived. He only spoke Spanish, and was dazed from the collision.

While he was trying to convey information from the survivor to emergency responders, seven ambulances arrived from nearby hospitals. The brother of one of the men in the van also came running over, Cortes said. He had been planning to meet his brother in the fields. When he saw the carnage, he began to cry.

“I told him to go ahead and cry,” Cortes said. “What more could I do? This is one of the worst accidents I’ve ever seen.”

California Highway Patrol officers said poor visibility at dawn was, at least in part, to blame.

"If there had more visibility, the drivers may have seen each other sooner," CHP Officer James Smith said. "They could have slowed down, which would have produced less injury – or they might have completely avoided the collision. ”

At the time of the crash, CHP said, visibility was about 100 to 200 feet. As firefighters cut the door off the van to remove the driver, who was wearing a seatbelt but absorbed the full impact of the collision, the fog grew denser.

"About one hour into the call, I’d say visibility dropped down to maybe 20 feet," Briggs said. “It was really bad.”

Witnesses and firefighters said the pickup belonged to a nearby nursery: Valley Crest Tree Co. Officials there declined to comment Tuesday.

As the day stretched on, news of the accident traveled to local growers, who wondered who the men were and where they were going.

An employee at the local Circle K gas-station market believed the men who were killed to be her "regular guys," a group of six Hispanic farm workers who stopped in daily for coffee and pastries before their morning shifts.

They hadn't come in Tuesday.

"They were all really good, hardworking people," Pamila Ramsey said. “I just keep thinking about their families, so many families. It’s so sad.”

Pieces of the workers' lunches scattered among glass and pieces of plastic along the highway's shoulder was all that remained once CHP cleared the scene.

Other than the driver, Smith said the van's other passengers were not likely wearing seat belts. It has not been determined if the van’s driver stopped at the stop sign on Van Allen Road before proceeding to cross onto Highway 4.

Foggy conditions are expected to continue throughout the Central Valley for the rest of the work week, according to the National Weather Service.

Fog typically forms when cold air passes over warmer water or land, especially after the ground has been soaked by rain. Though it’s been nearly three weeks since the region last saw any significant rainfall, fog also is possible anywhere near water, such as the many braided waterways of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where Tuesday's fatal accident occurred.

Sacramento Bee reporters Bill Lindelof and Matt Weiser contributed to this report.

Call The Bee’s Marissa Lang at (916) 321-1038. Follow her on Twitter at @Marissa_Jae.

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