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Van in Crash Failed Safety Check : Tragedy: Church vehicle involved in deadliest Orange County collision had even been ordered off the road.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Authorities disclosed Monday that the church van involved in Orange County’s most deadly traffic accident--which claimed eight lives and injured 11--had been cited for safety violations last year and ordered off the road.

Although investigators said the pastor behind the wheel when the van was struck by a pickup truck Sunday evening did not appear to be at fault, some suggested that the Ford Econoline’s makeshift seats contributed to the number of casualties.

Two bench seats cobbled together in the back of the van were not bolted down, and the passengers--police now believe at least 18 people were aboard--lacked safety belts.

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“If the van had had seats like in a regular cargo van and the people in there were wearing seat belts . . . they probably would have gotten bruised and battered, maybe even broken up,” said one Santa Ana police official who asked not to be identified. “But there would not have been any deaths. It wouldn’t have happened.”

In other developments:

* Investigators continued searching for the driver of the 1984 Chevrolet pickup who fled on foot after slamming into the van near the city’s bustling Civic Center. They also identified the vehicle’s owner, David Mendoza, of Santa Ana, but were unable to find him. About an hour after the 6 p.m. accident, officers said, Mendoza’s wife, Cristina, reported that the pickup had been stolen.

* Three of the most seriously injured passengers from the church van remained hospitalized. Mainor Mendez, an 11-year-old boy from Garden Grove, was in critical but improving condition at UCI Medical Center in Orange. At Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center in Mission Viejo, Mirtala Castro Lopez, 50, of Santa Ana, was in critical condition and Glenda Aguirre, 21, was stable.

* The horrific crash prompted several churches in Orange County to begin reviewing safety standards for vans used to shuttle congregation members to services and various events. And the Santa Ana City Council interrupted its meeting to order flags flown at half-staff. “They were moms and dads and kids all trying to make a better life for themselves,” Santa Ana Mayor Daniel H. Young said of the victims.

* Pastor Octavio Valentin, who was driving the van bound for the Non-Sectarian Church of God, held a press conference, announcing a fund to help the families of victims.

The accident occurred about 6 p.m. as the van entered the intersection of Flower Street and Civic Center Drive and was struck by the pickup. The force of the impact sent the van spinning through the intersection, hurling its passengers out a back door. A BMW following behind the truck also was involved, although authorities said it remained unclear Monday whether the car also hit the van. The BMW’s driver and passenger were uninjured, police said. Both were wearing seat belts.

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Lt. Bob Helton of the Santa Ana police said there is nothing to suggest that the BMW and the truck had been racing with each other or playing tag. Speeding does not appear to be a factor, he said.

Officials with the California Highway Patrol said there are no state laws prohibiting the unbolted bench seats or requiring seat belts because the van was being used to transport more than 10 people and qualified as a bus. While federal laws require manufacturers to install safety belts in vehicles such as the church van, there are no requirements that belts be installed if seats are added by the owner, said Sam Haynes, a CHP spokesman.

But authorities also said the van had been ordered out of service by a CHP inspector last November during a routine checkup and had not been approved for use before Sunday’s accident. Haynes said the church’s vehicles were cited for an absence of maintenance records, driver logs and equipment problems. A reinspection was supposed to be performed in May, but the van couldn’t be checked because it was in the shop for engine work, he said.

Although the van was not approved by Highway Patrol inspectors, the church could have put the vehicle back in service without the check if the problems were fixed, Haynes said.

Pastor Valentin, who was wearing a seat belt during the accident and was not seriously injured, insisted that the makeshift seats were bolted down, “but could have gotten out with the crash.”

Looking distraught and drained, Valentin spoke to reporters Monday across the street from his church. At his side were his wife, Ana, who clutched a Bible in her left hand, and their two daughters.

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Valentin has leased space for the Non-Sectarian Church of God, also known as Iglesia de Dios, for five years from the First United Methodist Church of Santa Ana. There, at Santa Ana Boulevard and French Street, he has held hundreds of services, often ferrying Spanish-speaking Latinos in the van that crashed Sunday night.

He said he remembers crossing the intersection and that “like a flash” he saw the white truck coming toward them. He recalled half turning to his passengers and yelling, “It’s going to hit! It’s going to hit!” But there was little he could do to avoid the crash.

The impact blew out three tires, and, according to witnesses, tossed the passengers out of the rear doors like jet pilots being ejected.

“I was going through the intersection with the green light when I got struck by the truck,” Valentin said. He added that he does not recall seeing a BMW, or whether it, too, struck the church van.

Still in shock, the pastor said: “I just can’t believe it. I can’t explain what happened . . . but the light was green all the way.”

Meanwhile, the families of the victims began grappling with grief after finally learning late Sunday about the fate of their loved ones. Church services have been suspended for one week, and many in the congregation of only about 70 parishioners were trying to figure out simply how they were going to pay for funeral services.

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The dead were Sonia Castro, 30, of Santa Ana; Rutilia Oliva, 31, of Garden Grove, who was 8 months pregnant; Ericka Mendez, 16, of Garden Grove, a junior at Santiago High School; Julio Guzman, 27, of Santa Ana; Carlos Oliva, 5, of Garden Grove; Iris Roman, 13, of Santa Ana; and Daniel Oliva, 2, of Garden Grove. Most of the victims originally were from Guatemala and came to the United States about two years ago.

Hardest hit by the tragedy was the family of Oliva. They attempted Monday to make sense of the accident that involved 11 extended family members and took the lives of Oliva, her 8-month-old fetus, her two sons and a niece. Her brother-in-law’s niece also was killed in the crash.

Sonia Castro will be buried in Guatemala because that is what she had requested, relatives said. Roman and Guzman will have funerals here, according to their families.

Officials at Santa Ana’s First United Methodist Church, which has been renting its facility with the other congregation for more than five years, has established a fund for the families of the victims, said the Rev. David R. Pasamonte, senior pastor of the Methodist church.

Counselors from Willard Intermediate School in Santa Ana, where Roman was a seventh-grader, stopped by Monday afternoon to offer condolences and a pot of yellow chrysanthemums to the dead student’s mother, Yanira Enriquez.

“If you need anything, don’t even think about it, just call,” said Dolores Witt, her arm around the shoulder of a grieving Enriquez.

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The crash has spurred leaders of several Orange County churches to check on the safety of their buses.

Ray Basile, director of worship at the 300-member Colonial Bible Church in Tustin, said the accident “has taught all of us a tremendous lesson about safety.” Basile said his church van meets all the safety standards, but officials will now go beyond the requirements.

Times staff writers Greg Hernandez, Thuan Le, Kristina Lindgren, Davan Maharaj, Gebe Martinez, David Reyes, Jodi Wilgoren and Eric Young contributed to this report.

Among the County’s Worst Accidents

Sept. 20, 1992: Eight churchgoers killed when pickup truck strikes their van near the Civic Center in Santa Ana. At least 11 others injured.

Sept. 26, 1991: Four people killed when driver of car in which they were riding headed wrong way on Santa Ana Freeway and slammed into oncoming pickup truck.

June 8, 1991: Five people killed in head-on collision on Santiago Road in El Toro, including four members of a Walnut family and driver of pickup truck that rammed family’s vehicle.

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May 19, 1990: Three San Clemente teen-agers traveling at high speed in borrowed Jaguar killed when car flipped, crashed on Avenida la Pata. Two other youths in vehicle also injured.

Nov. 19, 1989: Four people reportedly involved in drag race on Bristol Street in Santa Ana killed when their vehicle went out of control, smashed into telephone pole.

Source: Los Angeles Times Orange County Editorial Library

March 6, 1988: Wrong-way driver traveling

about 75 m.p.h. slammed into another car on Orange Freeway in Anaheim, killing himself, a Hacienda Heights couple and their elderly passenger in second vehicle.

April 5, 1987: Florida couple killed when oncoming car swerved over center divider on Laguna Canyon Road and struck them broadside. Driver of second vehicle and his passenger also killed. Feb. 23, 1987: Three-car collision on Garden Grove Freeway near Knott Street killed five people, most of whom died after being thrown from their vehicles upon impact.

June 27, 1985: Four Marines from El Toro Marine Corps Air Station killed when their car turned into path of truck in Tustin.

Oct. 23, 1984: Fullerton woman and three of her children killed when their car was struck head-on by drunk driver on State College Boulevard in Fullerton. Accident left woman’s two other children seriously injured.

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Researched by JANICE L. JONES / Los Angeles Times

Accident Toll

Sunday’s downtown Santa Ana crash was the deadliest traffic accident in Orange County history.

Killed:

Sonia Castro, 30, Santa Ana; housecleaner

Rutilia Oliva, 31, Garden Grove; about 8 months’ pregnant

Her fetus, listed as fetus Oliva

Her son, Carlos Oliva, 5, Garden Grove; just started kindergarten

Her son, Daniel Oliva, 2, Garden Grove; died at hospital

Ericka Mendez, 16, Garden Grove; junior at Santiago High School

Julio Guzman, 27, Santa Ana; dishwasher

Iris Roman, 13, Santa Ana; seventh-grader at Willard Intermediate School in Santa Ana

Hospitalized are:

Mainor Mendez, 11, Garden Grove; in critical but improving condition at UCI Medical Center in Orange

Mirtala Castro Lopez, 50, Santa Ana; in critical condition in intensive care unit of Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center in Mission Viejo

Glenda Aguirre, 21, Westminster; in stable condition in intensive care unit of Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center

Others injured or involved in the crash:

Edras Mendez, 12, Garden Grove; treated for leg and rib injuries at Western Medical Center-Santa Ana and released

His brother Alvaro Mendez, 14, Garden Grove; treated for injuries and released

Saul Sandoval, 22, Garden Grove; treated and released for minor injuries at Coastal Communities Hospital in Santa Ana

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His daughter, Cristina Sandoval, 4; treated and released for cuts and bruises at Coastal Communities Hospital

Dolores Martinez, 45, Garden Grove; had cut lip but didn’t go to hospital

Her grandson, Alexander Noel Martinez; treated and released for cuts and bruises at Coastal Communities Hospital

Sandra Guzman, 30, Santa Ana; treated at Doctors Hospital of Santa Ana for injured ear and shoulder and released

Octavio Valentin, 55, Santa Ana pastor and driver of church van; treated for bruises

Jasmine Martinez, 4, Garden Grove

Kurt A. Sense, 38, Santa Ana; drove BMW involved in crash, was not injured

His 11-year-old son not injured

Researched by KRISTINA LINDGREN and THUAN LE / Los Angeles Times

Crash Scenario Emerges

As details of Sunday’s tragedy in downtown Santa Ana became known, the lack of seat belts in an overloaded van were seen as contributing to Orange County’s worst traffic accident.

As of Monday

Eight people killed, including unborn child; six from one Garden Grove family; three other relatives in critical condition.

Police seeking driver of white Chevrolet pickup truck who fled scene.

CHP accident team called in by Santa Ana police to help reconstruct crash.

Church’s Ford Econoline van cited by CHP a year ago for mechanical problems.

How Collision Occurred 1. Van probably had green light. Approaching pickup truck, BMW probably not traveling at high speed. 2. Van struck by pickup, spins perhaps several times; those in back thrown against rear doors, which burst open. 3. 11 van passengers thrown out, one a pregnant mother in eighth month. She, her unborn child, six others die. Van driver, 10 others treated for injuries.

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Inside Ford Econoline Van Only factory-installed seating in front portion had seat belts; only the driver known to be wearing one. Makeshift seats not bolted to floor.

Van carried 18 people--a look at how they may have been seated.

Doors fly open during accident; unknown if they were locked; one bench cushion flies out.

Source: Santa Ana Police Department

Researched by DANNY SULLIVAN and KRISTINA LINDGREN / Los Angeles Times

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