- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

SALTILLO, MEXICO (AP) - A drunken driver lost control of his tractor-trailer and slammed into a bus carrying Canadians and Americans touring northern Mexico, killing 11, officials said Tuesday.

Seven Americans, three Canadians and the Mexican bus driver were killed, said Jose Angel Herrera, a federal homicide detective in northern Coahuila state.

They included two Texas middle school teachers on a spring break, a retiree from Iowa and a Quebec business consultant easing into retirement with a tour of the U.S. and Mexico. Many were snowbirds from colder climes who spent their winters in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.

Todd Huizinga, a spokesman for the U.S. consulate in the nearby city of Monterrey, said nine Americans were injured and that most were in stable condition.

Herrera said the tractor-trailer driver lost control, swerved onto the shoulder to his left, then overcompensated to the right and crashed into the bus coming from the opposite direction on Monday.

State prosecutors said urine tests indicated that truck driver Julio Cesar Garcia, 23, was driving under the influence of alcohol, and estimated that he may have drunk four to five beers before the crash. No charges have been lodged against him yet.

State civil defense officials said 16 people were injured, many seriously, and photos showed much of the side of the bus torn off.

“I can’t believe anybody got out alive,” said Beverley Kinnammon after speaking by phone with her sister, Barbara Jewell Dalke, of Mission, Texas, one of the survivors.

“She said it was really bad,” Kinnammon said by telephone after speaking with her sister earlier in the day. “We feel very lucky that Barbara seems to be OK.”

Herrera said the truck driver, who was among those hurt, had been intoxicated and would be charged with involuntary homicide.

Two of those killed were middle-school reading teachers at Cummings Middle School in Brownsville, Texas: Ana Maria Bujanos of Brownsville and Rebecca Pemelton of Harlingen.

“Tomorrow would have been our 33rd wedding anniversary, that’s why I’m taking it so hard,” said Bunanos’ husband, Chris.

Bujanos, 56, had taken similar trips for years, her husband said.

The Canadian Press news agency identified the Canadians who died as Robert Lacas, 56, of Quebec, Carolyn Kowaleski, 68, of Caledonia, Ontario, and Marilyn Jackson, 67, of Vancouver.

Lacas was “a man who worked hard all his life and was finally, slowly going into semiretirement and he was really excited about taking this trip,” said Jean-Luc Morin, who worked with Lacas for 14 years. Lacas’s wife, Line Carrier, 55, was among the four injured Canadians.

The couple had been touring the southern United States in a recreational vehicle. They left it at a campground in McAllen and boarded the bus for a whirlwind trip in northeastern Mexico, Carrier’s son Christian Poulin said.

“They raised their family, worked hard and were thinking about themselves _ and it was time to do that _ and sadly misfortune has befallen them,” Poulin said.

Ron Christy 73, of West Liberty, Iowa was an avid bocce ball and shuffleboard player who operated the sound system for dances and church services at an RV park in Donna, Texas, where he wintered with his wife Margaret Christy, 69.

Park manager Patty Wigdahl said Margaret Christy told her by telephone that she had been sitting beside her husband near the front of the bus, where shades were drawn to block the sun, and moved back to find an unblocked window. The crash then ripped a hole in the front of the bus.

Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department issued a statement expressing its “most sincere condolences” to the victims’ families and it offered to help with any paperwork the relatives may face.

The passengers were on a four-day tour of the Mexican cities of Zacatecas and Real de Catorce, according to a travel brochure from Viva Mexico Tours, which hired the bus.

The owners of the McAllen, Texas, tour business, Tomas and Aida Gonzalez, were on their way back from visiting the injured in Mexican hospitals Tuesday, said Irma Gomez, who was asked by the owners to come in and answer phone calls.

“We’re praying for the families,” Gomez said.


Associated Press writers Christopher Sherman in McAllen, Texas, Oscar Villalba in Piedras Negras, Mexico, and Alexandra Olson and Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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