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Police: Equipment failure caused NY trailer crash that killed 7, including aspiring mechanic

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    Two young women embrace after leaving a rose wreath at the site of the fatal car crash that killed seven along Route 13 in Truxton, N.Y., Thursday, May 30, 2013. Four children and three adults were killed when their minivan was hit by a trailer that became disconnected from it's hitch. The trailer slammed into a minivan with eight people inside. Four children under the age of 10 and three adults in their early 20s were killed. One man survived the crash. (AP Photo/Heather Ainsworth) (The Associated Press)

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    A makeshift memorial marks at the site of a fatal car crash along Route 13 in Truxton, N.Y., Thursday, May 30, 2013, that killed four children and three adults. Four children and three adults were killed when their minivan was hit by a trailer that became disconnected from it's hitch. The trailer slammed into a minivan with eight people inside. Four children under the age of 10 and three adults in their early 20s were killed. One man survived the crash. (AP Photo/Heather Ainsworth) (The Associated Press)

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    A scant few remnants from a fatal car crash along Route 13 in Truxton, N.Y., could be seen Thursday, May 30, 2013. According to the Cortland County coroner, four children under the age of 10 and three adults in their early 20s were killed. One man survived the crash. (AP Photo/Heather Ainsworth) (The Associated Press)

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    Sgt. Shawn Conway, right, and John Gallagher look over the site of a fatal crash,Thursday, May 30, 2013 in Truxton, N.Y. A minivan carrying two families was hit by a runaway trailer hauling crushed cars in upstate New York, killing four young children and three adults in their early 20s, authorities said Thursday. (AP Photo/The Syracuse Newspapers, Ellen M. Blalock) NO SALES (The Associated Press)

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    Truxton First Assistant Fire Chief, Ken Stone, talks on the phone at the scene of a fatal car crash along Route 13 in Truxton, N.Y., Thursday, May 30, 2013. According to the Cortland County coroner, a trailer slammed into a minivan with eight people inside. Four children under the age of 10 and three adults in their early 20s were killed, while one man survived. (AP Photo/Heather Ainsworth) (The Associated Press)

The driver of the minivan who was among seven people killed when a runaway truck trailer slammed into the vehicle in central New York was an aspiring mechanic heading home with his girlfriend and their friends and children who adored him, his mother said Friday.

Carino Vanorden, 24, was at the wheel Wednesday night when a trailer hauling crushed cars broke free of the big rig that was pulling it, cut across a rural, two-lane road and slammed into the minivan, his mother Kate Vanorden of Fayetteville said.

"There was zero time to make a maneuver," she said.

Vanorden said her adopted son was engaged to Lena Beckwith, 21, who also was killed when the minivan was hit in rural Cortland County south of Syracuse. The couple, who lived in DeRuyter, had not yet set a marriage date.

The sheriff's office said Friday investigators determined the cause of the crash was mechanical failure. A part intended to securely lock the coupling between the tractor and trailer failed, but investigators hadn't yet determined why, the sheriff's office said.

Trailers are typically attached to tractors by a "fifth wheel," in which a pin on the trailer fits into the center of a large horseshoe-shaped piece of metal and is secured by an automatic locking device.

Also killed in the crash were 26-year-old Teresa Bush, her two daughters, Alexis, 4, and Jasmine, 5; and Alyssa Mead, 7; and Tyler Mead, 4.

"The kids would just love going out with him," Kate Vanorden recalled.

Shawn Mead, the father of the two Mead children, was taken to Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse. He was released from the hospital Friday.

The large majority of truck crashes are attributed to driver error. But even in cases of mechanical failures, runaway trailers are rare.

Looking at five years of fatal crashes involving large trucks, 0.10 percent — or one in a thousand — involved the truck's couplings, hitches or chains, according to an analysis of federal data from 2007-2011 by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

"It's very rare but it does happen, and can be very serious. It's one of the things we inspect for," said Ralph Craft, a crash data analyst with the federal agency.

Ted Scott, the American Trucking Association's director of engineering who is not involved in the upstate crash investigation, said the automatic locking device setup has proved safe and requires a manual release.

"It is possible that with an old, not properly maintained fifth wheel that the device can get loose, the sides can wear away, the hole that the pin fits into is no longer snug and rigid," Scott said. "And at that point it can come loose, but that's a rarity."

The truck was owned and operated by Newton Salvage of Georgetown, N.Y. Messages left Thursday and Friday on an answering machine at Newton Salvage were not returned.

Kate Vanorden said her son had two part-time jobs and was saving money to go to Onondaga County Community College to study auto mechanics. She said she adopted him as a baby — her first of six adopted children — and said he loved cars and trucks since getting his first Matchbox car.

"He'd buy junkers, fix them up then he'd sell them on Craigslist, make a little money, buy a better car, fix that one up," she said.

She said her son had been living with Beckwith, her parents and her extended family. Teresa Bush was Beckwith's cousin, she said. She wasn't sure how the others were related.

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AP writers Michael Hill and George M. Walsh contributed to this story from Albany, N.Y.