Farmworker Who Saw Colleagues Die In California's Worst Crash Recalls Survival 50 Years Later

Isidro Hernandez Tovar lived for more than five decades with the searing memory of a crash in the Salinas Valley that killed 32 of his colleagues, all farmworkers who died when a freight train collided with their bus.

But only now is he sharing his story.

The 1963 accident on the U.S. 101 near Chualar, which was considered the worst traffic-related calamity in California history, happened when Hernandez Tovar was just 19.

The now 70-year-old Hernandez Tovar decided to talk with the newspaper after reading an article about a man thought to be the accident's lone survivor, The Monterey Herald reported.

That afternoon in September, Hernandez Tovar said he and 59 workers finished their shift picking celery and piled on to the bus, really just a flatbed truck with aluminum siding. The last thing he remembered was the feel of the train's impact. When he woke up, he saw bodies covered with tarps.

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"There was some light trickling in, and I remember seeing somebody moving," he said. "I kept walking and when I couldn't walk anymore, I sat by the edge of the field. Next day at the hospital I couldn't even write a letter."

I've always thought about the event, but I lost touch. Until now, when my son encouraged me to look things up. He said, 'Dad, you're part of history.'

— Isidro Hernandez Tovar

Hernandez Tovar was released from the hospital nearly two months later. He later returned his native Jalisco, Mexico.

On Thursday, Hernandez Tovar, his wife and son went back to the site of the crash and spoke with local researchers documenting the history of the bracero program, which brought guest workers from Mexico to the United States from 1942 to 1964.

The accident was commemorated with a small white cardboard cross, lettered "RIP 32 braceros. Sept. 17, 1963. 4:25 PM."

"Here is where I was born again," he said.

Hernandez Tovar recalled how he enrolled in the bracero program, under which an estimated 2.5 million Mexican laborers helped stem domestic labor shortages.

"Frankly, they treated you like a little animal, they sent you from here to there," he said. "Three of us from my town came to Salinas."

For years, Hernandez Tovar had been hungry for news about the accident.

On his visit to the site, he finally saw the commemoration activists had sought: a formal sign dedicating a stretch of highway to his co-workers who perished. At a dedication ceremony, among the honorees was Salvador Flores Barragan, the only other known survivor of the Chualar crash.

"I've always thought about the event, but I lost touch," Hernandez Tovar said. "Until now, when my son encouraged me to look things up. He said, 'Dad, you're part of history.'"

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