Friday, June 14, 2024

8 Mexican farmworkers killed, dozens injured after truck and bus collide in Florida

Eight Mexican migrant workers were killed and more than 40 others injured in a severe bus crash in Florida on Tuesday morning.

The workers were on their way to harvest watermelons when a 2001 Ford Ranger crossed over the centerline on a two-lane, rain-slicked country road about 130 kilometers north of Orlando, the local highway patrol said.

The pickup sideswiped a school bus headed in the opposite direction, causing it to veer off the road, after which it plowed through a fence, hit a tree and rolled over, officials noted.

The driver of the pickup, Bryan Maclean Howard, was arrested and charged with eight counts of driving under the influence/manslaughter, according to the state’s Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

In a court hearing on Wednesday, a judge denied Howard bond, appointed him a public defender and set his next court appearance for June.

Mexico’s Foreign Affairs Ministry (SRE) confirmed the nationalities of the deceased, all of whom were men holding H-2A visas for temporary or seasonal agricultural work in the United States.

Florida farms employ about 50,000 H-2A workers each year, more than any other state, according to the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association.

“With deep sorrow, I confirm the death of eight agricultural workers … Mexicans, men,” Foreign Minister Alicia Bárcena said on her X account late Tuesday night. “Seven of the 44 injured are hospitalized. Our consul [in Orlando, Florida] Juan Sabines Gutiérrez and the SRE will provide full support to our compatriots and their families.”

Local authorities reported that the bus was carrying 53 migrant workers when the collision occurred around 6:40 a.m. in Marion County, Florida. Over 30 ambulances were called to the scene, said Billy Woods, the county sheriff.

In his Wednesday morning press conference, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said that 44 of the farmworkers on the bus were Mexican citizens.

The president did not release any more information out of consideration for the victims’ relatives, he said. Mexican consular officials are working with U.S. authorities to identify the victims and notify their next of kin.

No information was provided as to what substance had allegedly left Howard impaired, although Bárcena said in an interview for Milenio TV that Florida authorities told her he was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the crash.

State records show he had previous arrests, accused of driving with a suspended license, leaving the scene of an accident and marijuana possession.

Cannon Farms, where the workers were headed, noted in a Facebook post that it would remain closed through Wednesday, and in another it provided a link to a GoFundMe campaign organized by the Farmworker Association of Florida to support victims of the accident and their families.

As of Wednesday morning, the fund had raised more than US $40,000. 

It was not known if the bus had seat belts or if the workers were using them. On June 28, a new seat belt requirement for employer vehicles carrying H-2A farmworkers will go into effect, the Labor Department previously announced. Florida law already requires seat belts for farmworker transport, but only in vehicles weighing less than 10,000 pounds.

Federal statistics show vehicle crashes were the leading cause of job-related deaths among farmworkers in 2022, the latest year available. They accounted for 81 of 171 fatalities.

With reports from Milenio, NBC News and Associated Press

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