A 13-year-old boy was driving the pickup truck that struck a van full of college golfers in a fiery head-on collision that left nine people dead in Texas, officials said Thursday.
Bruce Landsberg, vice chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, said that at this point, investigators believe the 2007 Dodge Ram 2500's left front tire failed, causing the vehicle to pull hard to the left and into oncoming traffic. The truck collided head-on with a 2017 Ford Transit van that was carrying members of the University of the Southwest's golf team on a highway near Andrews, Texas, at about 8:17 p.m. Tuesday. Both vehicles erupted in flames.
Landsberg said it was not yet clear how fast the truck and the van, which was carrying an 8-foot trailer, were traveling, but given that the speed limit on the highway is 75 mph in that area, they were likely moving close to that.
"It was very clearly a high-speed head-on collision between two heavy vehicles," he told reporters during a press conference. "There is no question about the force of impact."
Six members and the coach of the team from the university, a private Christian school based in Hobbs, New Mexico, were killed in the crash. They were identified as Tyler James, 26, of Hobbs, New Mexico; Mauricio Sanchez, 19, of Mexico; Travis Garcia, 19, of Pleasanton, Texas; Jackson Zinn, 22, of Westminster, Colorado; Karisa Raines, 21, of Fort Stockton, Texas; Laci Stone, 18, of Nocona, Texas; and Tiago Sousa, 18, of Portugal, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. Two others, identified as 19-year-old Dayton Price and 20-year-old Hayden Underhill, both from Canada, were taken to the University Medical Center Lubbock in critical condition.
University of the Southwest Provost Ryan Tipton said on Thursday that the two students who were injured were both “stable and recovering,” noting that one of them was eating chicken soup.
The team had been returning to New Mexico following a golf tournament in Midland, Texas, DPS officials said.
"The USW campus community is shocked and saddened today as we mourn the loss of members of our university family," the university said in a statement Wednesday.
The child who was behind the wheel of the pickup truck and a 38-year-old passenger, identified as Henrich Siemens, 38, of Seminole, were also killed. Authorities have not released the name of the boy, who was also from Seminole.
Landsberg did not provide any details about how the child ended up in the driver's seat or his relationship to the adult passenger. In Texas, you can enroll in a driver's education classroom-only course at age 14, but you cannot apply for a learner's license until age 15, according to DPS's website.
Landsberg said it was not the NTSB's job to investigate any potential criminal aspects of the collision, but he said the incident was a grave reminder of how deadly US roads are.
"The carnage on our highways exceeds any other mode of transportation," he said, noting that an average of 100 people die in traffic accidents each day. "So by the end of today, 100 more people will have died on our highways."
"And thousands more, thousands more will have suffered life-altering injuries, including severe burns, amputations, and so forth, which we do not want to minimize," Landsberg continued. "It's high time that we started to take our driving a bit more seriously than what it is."
The collision is still under investigation, but Landsberg said investigators believe that "quite a number" of passengers in the van were not wearing seatbelts. At least one passenger was ejected from the vehicle, he noted.
In a Facebook post, the mother of Laci Stone, one of the golfers who was killed, said their family will "never be the same" as they struggled to understand what happened.
"She has been an absolute ray of sunshine during this short time on earth," Chelsi Stone wrote.
Stone added that shortly before taking her daughter back to school, they got matching tattoos, something she never thought she'd do.
"I almost chickened out because I’m a baby but I went through with it. She of course is so strong that she didn’t even move," Stone said of her daughter. "I’m so forever grateful that God gave me the courage to go through with it and always have this memory with her."
According to her university bio, Laci Stone dreamed of owning her own business, while teammate Karisa Raines, a biology major, aspired to become a forensic scientist. Raines said in her bio that her favorite sports memory was her first hole-in-one.
Rick Long, the family pastor at Grace Church in Arvada, Colorado, told the Associated Press that 22-year-old Jackson Zinn loved the smell of the golf course and enjoyed playing in the church's annual golf tournament to raise money for Indigenous people in the Peruvian Amazon.
“He said that that’s the one place he could play his game and play it well and not feel the pressure of having to perform because he was doing it for a bigger mission, a bigger reason,” Long said, the AP reported.
In his bio, Travis Garcia, a criminal justice major, said he wanted to play golf professionally or join the US Secret Service. First-year student Mauricio Sanchez was also a member of the Pulgas Pandas Golf Club, according to the Mexican Golf Federation, which offered its condolences to the 19-year-old's family and friends.
Tiago Sousa, 18, came to the US from Portugal’s southern coast, Renata Afonso, head of the Escola Secundária de Loulé, told the AP.
“Any school would be delighted to have had him as a student,” Afonso said.
The students' coach, Tyler James, was in his first season with the university's golf team, having played himself at Ottawa University in Kansas and Texas's Howard Payne University, where he also spent time coaching, according to his bio. Before joining the USW staff, James was an assistant coach for the men's and women's golf teams at East Texas Baptist University, where he earned a master's degree in kinesiology.
"Tyler ran with it and really took advantage of his opportunities and his career goals," Ryan Erwin, vice president of student engagement and athletics at ETBU, told CBS 19. "It's just really heartbreaking for so many and it's something we don't take lightly."