HYATTSVILLE, Md. (AP) – A passenger van packed with 16 people on their way to a service at their small, Spanish-speaking evangelical church in suburban Washington was involved in a fiery and deadly crash that police and county officials described as one of the worst they could remember.
An elderly couple and a 6-year-old girl who were riding in the van were killed in the crash Sunday evening, the church's pastor said Monday, and another passenger, who was in the late stages of pregnancy, lost her baby. The driver of a pickup truck that veered across the center line into the path of the van was also killed, police said.
Shortly before hitting the van, the pickup driver hit another car and didn't stop, police said. Investigators were looking into whether the driver was speeding or under the influence of alcohol or drugs, but police cautioned that the investigation would take months.
The van driver had no time to react, police said. The truck burst into flames when the vehicles collided, and people who lived nearby rushed to the scene to try to help.
Jose Santos Jimenez, the pastor of Iglesia Ministerio de Dios Unido, was leading a service at his church when he got a phone call about the crash, and he rushed to the hospital. He spent most of Sunday night and all of Monday visiting and praying with the injured members of his small congregation, which has members from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Panama.
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Santos identified the couple who died as Santiago Merche and his wife, Elba Merche, both in their 70s. He said they were natives of El Salvador. Speaking through a Spanish-language translator, he described the 6-year-old who died as a "good girl" who "prayed for other kids" and "danced for the Lord."
He said his mourning congregation could take comfort in Jesus' teachings.
"Their parting is temporary and we will see them again," Santos said of those who died.
Donald Huff, who lives on the busy, four-lane Hyattsville street where it happened, told the Associated Press he was shocked to hear a "loud boom, just like a bomb" before he saw the flames. He said a few people ran out with kitchen firefighters "to try to get as close as they could, but it was a little too much."
Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker said at an event in Annapolis that the crash was the worst in years in the county.
"We're looking at this and what happened," Baker said. "It's clearly, you know, a tragic incident in the county. We're deeply disturbed about it."
Fourteen people, including five children, were injured. The children were being treated at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, where two were in critical condition Monday and three were in fair condition, a hospital spokeswoman said. Eight adults were being treated at Medstar Washington Hospital, a spokeswoman said.
A county police spokeswoman, Julie Parker, said investigators were not sure whether the people in the van were wearing seatbelts or whether the children, who included a 6-month-old baby, were secured in child safety seats. The crash occurred less than 5 miles from the church.
Santos said he had visited with most of the injured and he believed that they all would survive.
At the crash scene Monday, charred debris was strewn across the sidewalk, along the curb and in a small front yard of a two-story, brick house where the wreckage came to rest.