WESTLEY, Calif. – A septic truck collided with a sport-utility vehicle carrying farm workers in central California on Tuesday, sweeping both vehicles into an irrigation canal and killing at least five people.
Authorities pulled the Ford Explorer out of the Delta-Mendota Canal late Tuesday night and removed four bodies — three men and one woman — from the vehicle, California Highway Patrol Officer Mayolo Banuelos said.
Officials were working to identify the four victims, who were traveling home to Lodi after working in an orchard south of Westley in Stanislaus County. Investigators originally had believed that six people were in the SUV based on reports from family and witnesses.
Divers pulled one male body from inside the septic truck late in the afternoon, Banuelos said. Initial reports suggested two people had been in the truck, but investigators now believe there was only one.
The vehicles careened into the swift-moving waters of the canal about 15 miles southwest of Modesto after the truck slammed into the SUV at 12:21 p.m. Tuesday, according to the Highway Patrol.
Distraught relatives and friends of the crash victims lined the canal banks Tuesday afternoon, sobbing as divers probed its depths.
"When we got the call I thought it could have been any of us there with them," said Zenon Vargas, 34, who said he shares a home in Lodi with the SUV's driver, Eulalia Garcia. "It's been so many hours. It's so frustrating."
The canal runs about 17 feet deep and 100 feet wide in the area where the crash occurred, said Pete Lucero, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the 117-mile canal that funnels water from a Tracy pumping plant to the western San Joaquin Valley.
United Site Services Inc., which owned the septic truck, would not immediately release the identity of the driver, who had been cleaning out portable toilets in a nearby orchard before the crash, said Paige Dawson, a spokeswoman for the Westborough, Mass.-based company.
The truck was carrying non-toxic, biodegradable material, and there was no evidence the contents of the truck's tank had spilled into the canal, Dawson said.
Belen Martinez, 47, who worked in the same crew as Garcia, said she received a call that her friend, brother-in-law and nephew were involved in the wreck.
"They never had a chance to get home," said Martinez, who is originally from the Mexican state of Guerrero but now lives in Lodi. "We're just sitting here hoping and waiting."