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Amber Alert

Saturday, January 12, 2008

U-turn causes deadly accident on Pharr’s international bridge

A Mexican tractor-trailer driver trying to make a U-turn on the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge caused the collision that killed four and left six with minor injuries, a bridge official said Friday. The Mexican truck driver, who worked for the Flete Y Acarreos de Reynosa trucking company, was headed north toward the United States with a load of electronics, bridge director Jesse Medina said. About 7:10 p.m. the man turned his rig 180 degrees and collided with an empty southbound tractor trailer from the Oscar J. Cienfuegos Hernandez trucking company, Medina added.
While it would seem impossible for a tractor trailer to make a U-turn on the bridge, truckers on the Mexican side routinely do just that when they realize that they’re missing the proper documentation to cross the international border with cargo, Medina said.
“It’s almost impossible to do (a U-turn) without hitting the barriers,” Medina said, referring to the guardrails intended to prevent vehicles from going over the edge of the bridge.
Efforts to contact the two trucking companies were unsuccessful.

Treacherous maneuvers

On the Mexican side, the guardrails are damaged from the repeated impact of large cargo trucks making 180-degree turns, Medina said. Truckers typically don’t attempt the maneuver on the U.S. side of the bridge, where officers tend to pursue those who do so.
While both the truck drivers in Thursday’s collision escaped injury, four other people in passenger vehicles were killed. A total of five vehicles were involved.
Flames engulfed a minivan and burned the driver, Mexican national Ismael Rosa Guevara, so badly that officials initially were unable to determine his gender.
Three others died when a 1995 Chevrolet pickup truck careened off the bridge, landing in the dry riverbed below. The victims were Reynosa residents Hugo Oswaldo Hinojosa, 41, Santiago Paz Gonzalez, 37, and Daniel Rodriguez Hernandez, 26.
Below the bridge Thursday night, pieces of the truck and shards of glass were scattered across the dirt. Rosary beads with a broken cross lay in the charred remains.
The bodies of the three men in the truck are being sent to Reynosa for funeral services. The wife of Guevara, the minivan driver, is trying to obtain a humanitarian visa to enter the United States to identify her husband and claim his body, said Miriam Medel, a spokeswoman for the Mexican Consulate in McAllen.
Passengers in a fifth vehicle were also caught up in the incident. The adult driver and three children were taken to McAllen Medical Center on Thursday night with minor injuries.

Circumstances complicate investigation

Pharr police officials spent Thursday night reconstructing the incident, said Lt. Guadalupe Salinas of the Pharr Police Department. But the investigation is complicated by the lack of skid marks, which were burned in the ensuing inferno. A camera on the bridge that could have recorded what happened wasn’t functioning.
“I would have some tremendous video if it was working at the time,” Medina said.
Authorities will review the findings from the investigation and decide whether to file criminal charges, according to a police statement released Friday afternoon.
Officials with the U.S. Department of Transportation are auditing the two trucking companies to ensure compliance with U.S. regulations, DOT spokeswoman Melissa Delaney said. The department investigates trucking companies when there are two or more fatalities in a crash.
DOT is treating the crash just as it would if the motor carriers were U.S. companies, Delaney said.
Both companies were operating under U.S. restrictions that confine their trucks to the border zone, which extends about 20 miles inland from the border, Delaney said.

Assessing bridge integrity

Early Friday, the Pharr city engineer and a team from the Texas Department of Transportation studied the bridge for signs of damage, and they determined it was safe to reopen for traffic.
“I’m bringing in other engineers to get a second opinion, but no damage is apparent,” Medina said in a phone interview Friday morning. “This is out of an abundance of caution, not a perceived problem.”
The bridge stands equipped to handle 280,000 pounds of pressure per square foot, Medina said. Officials initially worried the fire could weaken the cement. Firefighters, however, controlled the inferno within 30 minutes and kept it confined to the deck of the bridge. Had there been a prolonged blaze below the bridge, the threat would have been greater, Medina said.
Authorities planned to cordon off about 100 yards of the bridge deck and will need to repaint the traffic lines, he said.
The incident occurred about one mile south of the inspection point on the U.S. side and less than half a mile north of the Rio Grande. Officials estimated the closure stranded about 100 trucks on the Mexican side and 300 on the Texas side. Source