Witness Says Pickup Driver Said He Was Texting Before Crash

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NEW BRAUNFELS, Texas (KRLD-AM/AP) – A witness says the pickup driver who hit a church bus head-on, killing 13 older adults in Southwest Texas Wednesday, told him he had been texting.

Jody Kuchler said he followed Jack Young’s pickup for miles Wednesday while his girlfriend got video of the pickup.

Kuchler said they called the police but the crash happened before anything could be done about the driver who Kuchler said had been swerving.

Kuchler said he ran to the bus and started checking on people but saw that most had died.

He said he then talked to the driver.

Authorities in two Texas counties said they received phone calls about a pickup driving erratically shortly before the head-on collision

A researcher with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, meanwhile, said a likely reason so many aboard the small bus died is that they all were senior citizens, ranging in age from 61 to 87, whose frailty made them more susceptible to injury and death.

One man called the dispatch line just past noon Wednesday to report that a white Dodge pickup was swerving on the road, Uvalde police Lt. Daniel Rodriguez said Thursday.

“(The caller) was scared (the pickup driver) was going to cause an accident and asked us to send deputies,” Rodriguez said. “Deputies were dispatched, but before they could reach the area, the same caller called 911 to report that the truck had been in an accident.”

Dispatchers in Real County received a call from a woman who reported a truck was driving erratically on U.S. 83, county Constable Nathan Johnson said. Real County officials called Uvalde County officials to coordinate a response to send deputies. Then, the woman called back and said the truck that had been driving erratically had struck another vehicle before reaching Real County, Johnson said.

“Unfortunately, he struck a motor vehicle before anyone could respond,” he said.

The wreck occurred along a curve in the road where the speed limit is 65 mph, DPS Sgt. Orlando Moreno said.

The Texas Department of Public Safety refused to speculate on the cause of the collision near the town of Concan, about 80 miles west of San Antonio, although one spokesman said the truck driver appeared to have crossed the center line.

The National Transportation Safety Board sent investigators on Thursday to start looking into the crash. The agency said the investigation will continue Friday.

It is not yet clear if the bus passengers were wearing seatbelts or even if the minibus was fitted with suitable restraints. Laura Higgins, a researcher with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, said even if the passengers were strapped in, restraints being worn by senior adults in a high-impact collision can cause internal damage.

Higgins said Friday that the frailty of older people is a primary reason they’re the most likely age group to die in traffic accidents.

“It would be a severe crash for any of us and for those on the bus, at that kind of speed, you’re dealing with the forces of physics on a more fragile human body,” Higgins said.

Twelve bus passengers and driver Murray William Barrett, 67, died at the scene, DPS Lt. Johnny Hernandez said. Another bus passenger died at a San Antonio hospital. The pickup driver, Jack Dillon Young, 20, of Leakey, Texas, was still in stable condition and the lone survivor from the bus remained in critical condition Thursday night, DPS said.

DPS Sgt. Conrad Hein said the small bus was a 2004 Turtle Top, though he did not know the specific model. Turtle Top’s website features shuttle buses with capacities ranging from 17 to 51 passengers, which they bill as “a great alternative to the standard 15-passenger van.”

Safety concerns have long surrounded the 15-passenger vans, which are frequently used by churches and other groups, with advocates saying they can be difficult to control in an emergency.

The First Baptist Church of New Braunfels, Texas, said its members were returning from a three-day retreat at the Alto Frio Baptist Encampment in Leakey, about 9 miles (15 kilometers) from the crash site.

Barbara Skipper, superintendent of the Leakey school district, said Young attended high school there and played football. He remained in school until 2014 but didn’t graduate, she said.

The collision was one of the deadliest in Texas in recent memory. Eight people were killed in May when a charter bus headed to a casino rolled over north of Laredo. In 2015, eight inmates and two corrections officers were killed when their prison bus skidded off a highway near Odessa, traveled down an embankment and was struck by a passing freight train.

Seventeen people died in 2008 when a charter bus crashed in North Texas near the Oklahoma border, and 23 nursing home residents being evacuated from the Houston area as Hurricane Rita approached in 2005 were killed when their charter bus caught fire near Dallas.

(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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