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Bus crash kills 8 Mexican citizens on their way to Florida

OCALA, Fla. (AP) — A man with a lengthy record of reckless driving told investigators he smoked marijuana oil and took prescription drugs hours before crashing into a bus, killing eight Mexican farm workers and injuring dozens more, according to an arrest report unsealed Wednesday. .

Bryan Maclean Howard, 41, pleaded not guilty to driving under the influence and manslaughter and remained jailed without bail for Tuesday’s crash. The Florida Highway Patrol says he drove his 2001 Ford pickup truck in the center line on a two-lane road and struck the bus, causing it to veer off the road, hit a tree and roll over.

Seasonal farm workers were on their way early in the morning to harvest watermelon at Cannon Farms in Dunnellon, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) northwest of Orlando in Marion County in rural north-central Florida. of hills with numerous horse farms and abundant fields of fruit and vegetables.

The Mexican consulate in Orlando was working to support victims, meeting with some at a Gainesville hotel. Many were taken to AdventHealth Ocala Hospital.

Juan Sabines, the Mexican consul in Orlando, told Spanish media that seven workers, three of them in critical condition, were still hospitalized as of Wednesday afternoon.

Sabines said she contacted the families of the eight workers killed in the accident.

He also said inspectors from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division were conducting workplace inspections, and the consul encouraged workers to call the Safety and Health Administration at work to obtain anonymous information if they had anything to report about the employer. The Labor Department did not respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press.

Sabines said he spoke with the 44-year-old bus driver, also a Mexican on a visa.

“What he needs most right now is help with his mental health,” Sabines said.

In the pickup truck driver’s arrest report, state troopers say Howard had bloodshot eyes, watery eyes and slurred speech after the crash, which he said he didn’t remember .

He told an investigator that he crashed his mother’s car into a tree a few days earlier while dodging an animal, and that on Monday night he took two anticonvulsants and blood pressure medications in no more smoking marijuana oil. He said he woke up about five hours later and drove to a methadone clinic where he received daily medication for a chipped vertebra, according to the affidavit.

Howard then failed several sobriety tests and was arrested, the Florida Highway Patrol said.

Responding to a judge via teleconference from jail Wednesday, Howard said he was a self-employed painter and drywall installer with $700 in the bank, no other assets and no dependents. Howard’s head was bandaged and he wore a protective gown typically given to inmates on suicide watch. The judge denied bail, appointed a public defender and scheduled his next court appearance for next month.

Howard’s parents did not immediately respond to a Wednesday phone message seeking comment, and the Marion County Public Defender’s Office declined to comment.

Marion County court records show Howard had at least three accidents and numerous citations dating back to 2006, including a citation for crossing the center line. His license has been suspended at least three times, most recently in 2021 for getting too many citations in one year. In 2013, he was convicted of robbery. A year later, his probation was revoked after he tested positive for cocaine.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Wednesday morning that 44 Mexican farm workers were on the bus, hired by a Mexican-American farmer to work on the watermelon farm on H-2A visas. Florida farms employ about 50,000 H-2A workers each year, more than any other state, according to the Florida Fruit & Vegetal Association.

Six of the dead have been identified: Evarado Ventura Hernández, 30; Cristian Salazar Villeda, 24 years old; Alfredo Tovar Sánchez, 20 years old; Isaías Miranda Pascal, 21 years old; José Heriberto Fraga Acosta, 27 years old; and Manuel Pérez Rios, 46 years old.

Jose Ventura told Univision that Evarado Ventura Hernandez was his younger brother and that he helped him come to work in the United States. He said his brother left behind a young daughter.

“We just came for a better future, but now you can see what we found. We died,” he told the Spanish television channel.

He sobbed as he added: “I was supposed to take care of my brother because he was the youngest. »

More than two dozen people gathered Wednesday evening at a memorial service for the victims outside the Farmworker Association of Florida office north of Orlando in Apopka, Florida. Some people held up white crosses with the names of those killed, some spoke and others sang songs in Spanish.

“They were here to do honest work,” Jeannie Economos, head of the Farmworker Association of Florida, said of the farmworkers. “Agricultural work is hard. They came here to work hard to support themselves and their families back home.

Cannon Farms, a family-owned business that ships melons to grocery stores across the United States and Canada, said it would remain closed until Wednesday.

“Thank you to everyone who reached out and offered condolences, help and prayers” for those injured in the crash, Cannon Farms said in a Facebook post. He said the bus was operated by Olvera Trucking Harvesting Corp.

No one answered the phone at Olvera Trucking after the accident. The company recently announced it was looking for a temporary driver who would transport workers to the watermelon fields and then operate the harvesting equipment, at $14.77 an hour.

A Department of Labor document shows Olvera also asked 43 H-2A workers to harvest watermelons at Cannon Farms this month, again at the base rate of $14.77 an hour, with promises of accommodation and transportation to and from the fields.

The H-2A program allows U.S. employers or agents who meet certain regulatory requirements bringing foreign nationals into the country to take up temporary agricultural jobs. Getting to and from the fields can be dangerous: Federal statistics show that vehicle accidents were the leading cause of work-related deaths among farmworkers in 2022, the latest year available. They accounted for 81 of the 171 deaths.

It was not immediately clear whether Olvera’s vehicle, which the Highway Patrol described as a “retired” school bus, was equipped with seat belts.

The Ministry of Labor announced new seat belt requirements for employer vehicles used by agricultural workers on temporary visas, among other worker protection measures that will take effect on June 28. Florida law already requires safety belts for transporting agricultural workers use vehicles weighing less than 10,000 pounds. The Florida Fruit & Vegetal Association called the new federal seat belt requirement “impractical.”

Advocacy groups have called for stronger laws and enforcement to protect farmworkers, while a GoFundMe campaign organized by the Farmworker Association of Florida to support accident victims and their families had raised nearly $58,000 Wednesday night.

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Spencer reported from Fort Lauderdale. Contributors include Adriana Gómez Licón in Miami and Amy Taxin in Santa Ana, California.

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News Source : apnews.com

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