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Witness: Driver in deadly Texas crash admitted texting before collision

Photo: KABB/WOAI via AP

HOUSTON — The driver of a pickup truck that collided with a church minibus in rural Texas, killing 13 people, apologized after the crash and acknowledged he had been texting while driving, a witness said Friday.

Jody Kuchler told The Associated Press he was driving behind the truck and had seen it moving erratically prior to the Wednesday collision on a two-lane road about 75 miles west (120 km) of San Antonio, near the town of Concan. Kuchler said the truck had crossed the center line several times while he followed it.

Kuchler, 55, a self-employed welder, said he and his girlfriend were driving back to their home in the nearby town of Leakey when he came across a truck that was driving erratically across the road.

“He kept going off the road and into oncoming traffic and he just kept doing that,” said Kuchler, who followed the truck for at least 15 minutes.

Kuchler said he called the sheriff’s offices for both Uvalde and Real counties and told them “they needed to get him off the road before he hit somebody.”

Kuchler said he witnessed the crash and afterward, he checked on both the bus and the truck and was able to speak with the driver of the truck, who has been identified by the Texas Department of Public Safety as 20-year-old Jack Dillon Young, of Leakey.

“He said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I was texting.’ I said, ‘Son, do you know what you just did?’ He said, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry,'” Kuchler recalled.

Kuchler first shared the account of what happened with the San Antonio Express-News.

The wreck occurred along a curve in the road where the speed limit is 65 mph, according to Department of Public Safety officials.

Department of Public Safety Sgt. Conrad Hein declined to comment on Friday on the cause of the crash or if texting might have played a role. But officials have said the truck driver appeared to have crossed the center line.

Federal investigators would not comment on the report Friday. However, Jennifer Morrison, the investigator in charge of the team from the National Transportation Safety Board, said Friday that distracted driving will be among the issues investigated.

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

Young remains hospitalized following the crash. Twelve people on the bus died at the scene, authorities said. Another died at a San Antonio hospital. One bus passenger remains hospitalized in serious but stable condition, according to the church.

The bus occupants ranged in age from 61 to 87.

Texas is unusual in that it has no statewide ban on texting while driving. Dozens of cities across the state prohibit the practice, but local ordinances may not have applied in the rural area where Wednesday’s crash occurred. Laws in 46 other states ban sending or reading email, using apps or engaging in other use of the internet while driving.

Texas’ GOP-controlled Legislature approved a statewide ban in 2011 but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Rick Perry, who characterized such prohibitions as government micromanagement and said educating drivers was the key to deterrence. A similar proposal passed the Texas House a few weeks ago but has yet to make it to a Senate floor vote.

The number of motor vehicle deaths in the U.S. last year topped 40,000 for the first time since 2007, according to the National Safety Council. The number of vehicle crash deaths in Texas rose 7 percent last year to 3,464, slightly higher than the national rise. One-in-10 driving fatalities in 2015 were caused by some kind of distraction, the U.S Department of Transportation said.

Morrison said most, if not all, of the bus occupants in the Texas crash were wearing seat belts. The driver and front-passenger seats had three-point lap-and-shoulder belts while the rest of the seats behind had lap belts only, she said.

Three-point seat belts are always preferable to lap belts because they hold the upper torso in place and help prevent head injuries, said automotive safety advocate Joan Claybrook. One of the problems with lap belts only is that in a frontal impact crash, people will remain in their seats but their upper bodies will go forward and their heads can strike the back of the seat in front, she said.

If the passengers wearing lap-only belts are seated along the sides of the buses, instead of facing forward, they will often hit their heads on the sides of the vehicle or the windows, said Henry Jasny, senior vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. A frontal crash of this type would be like “hitting a brick wall,” he said.

The NTSB identified the church vehicle as a 2004 Ford E-350 series van that had been converted to a minibus. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the only safety issues identified with that vehicle model from that particular year was a fuse problem reported in 2007 in vehicles that had been retrofitted to become ambulances.