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8 dead, dozens hurt in farmworker bus crash; truck driver held on DUI-manslaughter charges

A white bus lies on its side with debris scattered around it at the edge of trees.
The Florida Highway Patrol said the bus carrying farmworkers collided with a truck and swerved off a road in Marion County, north of Orlando.
(WFTS / Associated Press)
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A pickup truck crashed into a bus carrying farmworkers in central Florida on Tuesday, killing eight people and injuring at least 40 others, authorities said. The truck driver faces eight counts of driving under the influence-manslaughter.

The bus was taking 53 farmworkers to watermelon fields in Marion County, about 80 miles northwest of Orlando, when it was hit about 6:40 a.m., the Florida Highway Patrol said.

Troopers said Bryan Maclean Howard, 41, was driving a 2001 Ford Ranger when it crossed into the center line on State Road 40, a straight but somewhat hilly two-lane road that passes through horse farms. The truck sideswiped the bus, causing it to veer off the road. The bus crashed through a fence and into a tree before overturning.

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It was not immediately known if Howard has an attorney, and no phone numbers for family members could be found. According to state records, Howard has previous arrests for driving with a suspended license, leaving the scene of an accident and marijuana possession.

The bus ended up on its side, with its windows smashed and its emergency rear door and top hatch open. The truck came to a stop at the side of the road, with its airbag blown and extensive damage to the driver’s side.

Federal statistics show that 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.

It was not immediately not known whether the bus had seat belts.

Authorities in several states have been pushing for greater regulations for the safety of farmworkers, who are overwhelmingly migrants. It is unknown whether all the workers on the bus were migrants. The Mexican Consulate in Orlando said it was making help available to any of the workers who are from its country.

The U.S. Labor Department announced new seat belt requirements for employer vehicles used for farmworkers on temporary visas, among other worker protections that take effect June 28. The Florida Fruit & Vegetable Assn. has been opposed, calling the seat belt requirement “impractical.”

State law requires seat belts for farmworker transport using vehicles weighing less than 10,000 pounds.

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The bus had been headed to Cannon Farms in Dunnellon.

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April 26, 2024

“We will be closed today out of respect to the losses and injuries endured early this morning in the accident that took place to the Olvera Trucking Harvesting Corp.,” Cannon Farms announced on its Facebook page. “Please pray with us for the families and the loved ones involved in this tragic accident.”

Cannon Farms describes itself as a family-owned operation that has farmed its land for more than 100 years and focuses now on peanuts and watermelons.

No one answered the phone at Olvera Trucking on Tuesday afternoon. The company had recently advertised for a temporary driver to bus workers to watermelon fields. The driver would then operate harvesting equipment. The pay was $14.77 an hour.

A Department of Labor document shows Olvera recently applied for 43 H-2A workers to harvest watermelons at Cannon Farms this month. The company offered a base rate of $14.77 an hour, with promises of housing and transportation to and from the fields.

The H-2A program allows U.S. employers or agents who meet certain regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals into the country to fill temporary agricultural jobs.

Andres Sequera, a director of mission and ministry for AdventHealth hospitals, told reporters that the injured workers who could be visited by chaplains “were in good spirits for what they have been through.”

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A GoFundMe campaign organized by the Farmworker Assn. of Florida to support accident victims and their families had raised about $5,000 of a $50,000 goal by Tuesday evening.

“Farmworkers tend to be forgotten, but it’s important not to forget farmworkers, especially during such difficult times,” the post said.

Two groups that advocate for farmworkers issued statements calling for stricter laws to protect them from harm.

“It is too easy to dismiss this as just another accident,” said Asia Clermont, Florida director for the League of United Latin American Citizens. “Florida must take every possible step to protect its essential workers, who are human beings and the backbone of the state’s economy.”

Ty Joplin of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers said transportation laws for farmworkers are often unenforced.

“While accidents will happen, protecting workers while transporting them with mandatory and enforceable safety provisions, like seat belts and safety inspections, can reduce injuries and deaths,” he said.

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