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Daily Newspaper and Travel Guide
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Top Stories

Tuesday, April 16, 2002

Feds issue safety warnings on 15-passenger vans

From Staff and Wire Reports
PECOS, Tuesday, April 16, 2002 -- Five days after the crash of a van carrying 13 U.S. Marshal's  Service inmates and two guards in Jeff Davis County, the federal  government issued a renewed safety warning for 15-passenger vans, saying that  the fully loaded vehicles are more susceptible to rollovers.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration repeated Monday the unusual consumer advisory it issued a year ago, warning the vans have a dramatically higher risk of rollovers when fully loaded and only should be operated by experienced drivers.

NHTSA Administrator Jeffrey Runge said the problems are not related to the van's design.

"This is not a defect issue," he said. "This is a behavioral issue with the drivers."

Before getting behind the wheel, a driver should be familiar with the handling aspects of such a large vehicle, he said.

A Ford van owned by CiviGenics of Texas was fully loaded last Wednesday on a trip from El Paso to Odessa when the driver of the vehicle lost control, causing the van to strike a bridge guardrail and roll over and down an embankment on Interstate 10, at the 183 mile marker in northern Jeff Davis County. Two inmates, Francisco Letkeman-Wiebe, 48, and Jose Rubio, 25, died at the scene of the accident, while three others were injured seriously enough to remain at hospitals in El Paso, Midland and Lubbock after the other eight inmates along with the driver and second guard were treated and released from Reeves County Hospital in Pecos and Thomason General Hospital in El Paso.

The 13 inmates were being transported from El Paso to the Ector County Detention Center in Odessa, said Jim Shaw, regional director for CiviGenics, the company that also operates the detention center. The inmates were part of a two-van convoy that had left Odessa about 4:30 a.m. to pick up the prisoners in El Paso, and had begun their return trip to Odessa around 12 noon CDT. The guards in the van had covered about 445 miles of their 560-mile round trip over a 10-hour period when the accident occurred.

A report issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety cited fatigue on the part of the driver, Duane Taylor, as the main factor in the accident. That report from the DPS was initially disputed by Shaw, who said the van rolled after the front right tire blew out.

Corrections officer Mike Contreras, who was riding with Taylor when the van wrecked, also said a guard in the second CiviGenics van told him a blowout occurred.

The inmates were in four rows of seats behind a grill that separated them from the front seat of the van where Taylor and Contreras were seated. The 13 inmates had their legs chained, but according to DPS Sgt. Luis Najera of Van Horn, they were not wearing seat belts when the accident occurred.

Anyone carrying 16 or more people for commercial purposes is required to have a commercial driver's license, but no special license or experience is required for the 15-passenger vans. Federal law bans the purchase of 15-passenger vans for schools, but there is no such ban for colleges or others, such as church groups or detention facilities that use the small vans instead of buses to carry inmates from one site to another.

NHTSA is studying whether to require all new 15-passenger vans to carry a label encouraging seat belt use and warning about rollover risks, and Runge said he is sending a letter reminding dealerships that it is illegal for them to sell the vans to schools.

When fully loaded, a large van's center of gravity shifts higher and to the back, increasing the risk of rollovers. Last year NHTSA examined accident data in seven states from 1994 through 1997 and found the vans are three times more likely to roll over when carrying 10 or more passengers.

NHTSA had no figures on the number of van accidents in the last year, but at least three have resulted in multiple injuries or deaths.

Six members of the Utah State University men's volleyball club were injured when their van flipped last April. A month later, separate accidents killed four women on a trip with the First Assembly of God church in Burkburnett, Texas, and two members of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at the University of Central Arkansas.

Joan Claybrook, president of consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, called NHTSA's actions "woefully inadequate."

"A verbal admonishment to wear your seat belt will do nothing to protect these passengers," she said. "A warning label would only shield auto manufacturers from liability, allowing them to argue that they aren't responsible for deaths and injuries sustained in rollover crashes because the drivers and passengers were duly warned."

NHTSA officials said there are about 1.4 million 15-passenger vans registered in the United States. Popular models include the Ford Econoline E350, Chevrolet Express 3500, GMC Savana G3500, GMC Rally/Vandura G3500 and Dodge Ram Van/Wagon B3500.

Groups seeking help for families after Friday fire

Staff Writer

PECOS, Tuesday, April 16, 2002 -- Funds and other donations are being solicited for two families  and an investigation is continuing into a fire that destroyed their homes  Friday afternoon.

All seven units of the Pecos Volunteer Fire Department were called to the scene, in the 600 block of Ross Boulevard, shortly after 1:30 p.m.

"The fire started in the second house from the corner, inside a van," said Town of Pecos City Fire Marshal Jack Brookshire. The van was parked in the carport area of a home occupied by Israel Gonzales, his wife and three teenage daughters, at 605 Ross Boulevard. The fire spread from the van to their house and then two a second home on the south side of the carport where the family of Elda Fuentes lived.

Families occupied both homes and a resident of the first house was asleep inside when the incident occurred.

A story in yesterday's Pecos Enterprise incorrectly stated that the Gonzales' house was empty.

Gonzales was asleep inside the house when the fire started. "He heard something pop, like the window or something and that is what woke him up," said Brookshire.

The fire marshal said that the fire started inside the van, then spread to the carport and then the attic of that house. "After that house was on fire, it spread to the other house, the one located right on the corner," said Brookshire.

The van was in working condition and had been used by Mr. Gonzales recently. "He had driven it home from work that morning," said Brookshire.

Both Gonzales' are employed at Anchor West, according to a member of the Church of Christ, the church the family attends.

Church of Christ is helping out the Gonzales' family and anyone wishing to donate anything to the family who lost everything Friday can do so by contacting the church located at Fourth and Bois D'Arc streets, or by calling 445-3093.

Elda Fuentes worked at La Tienda Thriftway and store employees there are taking donations to help her family out.

"We've been collecting dishes, clothes and anything that people would like to donate to her and her family," said La Tienda store manager Noe De Los Santos on Monday. "Everything was destroyed, so the family is really in need."

Heavy smoke poured out of the garage area of the Gonzales' home for about 30 minutes. The garage, which continued back from the house to the rear alley of the home, was located only a few feet from the Fuentes' home.

"The distance between the homes probably wouldn't meet the new codes today, but when they were first built it did meet the codes," said Brookshire.

The burning van was parked at the front of garage, and firemen used a pick-up truck to pull the vehicle out of the garage and towards the street after the van had been destroyed.

A windowsill that caught on fire on the north side of the Fuentes' home was also extinguished, but the fire in the rear section of the garage continued to burn, while the fire from the burning van had spread onto the roof of the garage and then into the attic above the main section of the house.

That caused the fire to increase again and by 2:45 p.m., the first home was fully engulfed in flames. The fire then spread to the second home, setting the roof on fire and eventually causing it to collapse. Both homes were totally destroyed, according to Brookshire.

All units were on the scene and the firefighters were there until 6:30 p.m., according to Brookshire.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation. "All we know at this time is that it did start inside the van and spread from there," said Brookshire.

Local sales tax rebates increase for April

PECOS, Tuesday, April 16, 2002 -- Sales tax rebates for April were up for most of the smaller cities in the Permian Basin and Trans-Pecos region and down for the area's largest cities, according to figures released Friday by State Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander's office.

Pecos' tax rebates for April, based on sales made in the city during February, were up 5.59 percent over the same period a year ago, and the first four months of 2002 are up 6.28 percent from 2001's totals. The city got back $54,148 this month from Rylander's office, as their 1½-cent share of the state's 8¼-cent sales tax. That total is up from the $51,277 the city received a year ago.

Of this month's total, one sixth, or $9,025, goes towards funding for the Pecos Economic Development Corp.

Balmorhea and Toyah also reported increases in their April tax rebate checks. Balmorhea's check for $1,117 was up 346.2 percent from last year's $255 check and Toyah's check for $564 was up 102.55 percent from last year's $278 the city received in April.

Balmorhea's tax rebates for the first four months of the year stand at $4,264, which is 110.63 percent up from 2001, while Toyah received several large rebate checks in the early part of last year, so their $1,803 total is a drop of 45.87 percent from a year ago.

For 2002 so far, Pecos has gotten $252,973 back from Austin, which is up from the $238,017 last year.

Andrews had the biggest single jump of any area city. It's April rebate check of $154,630 was more than $105,000 higher than April 2001's check, and represented a 215.4 percent increase. Other cities were more in line with the normal monthly fluxuations, with Presidio, Marfa, Crane and Kermit reporting double-digit increases in their tax rebate checks, while Monahans, Alpine and Fort Stockton saw their sales tax numbers drop slightly from last year, according to the comptroller's office.

Also dropping were the rebate checks for both Midland and Odessa. Midland continued to receive the Permian Basin's largest check, but the $1.140,262 was down .84 percent from last year, while Odessa's check for $916.720 was a drop of 8.16 percent from April of 2001.

April tax rebates for the Reeves County Hospital District, based on their ½-cent sales tax, were $30,184, which was up 34.52 percent from the $22,438 last year. For 2002, the hospital has gotten $120,787 in sales tax rebates over the past four months, which is up 25.81 percent from last year.

Statewide sales tax figures for April were down for cities and counties in Texas .83 percent, to $182.5 million. Houston's check for just under $23.4 million was up just under one percent from last year, but Dallas' check for $13.6 million was a decline of about 1½ percent from last year.

T-NP honors two for helping locally on deregulation job

PECOS, Tuesday, April 16, 2002 -- Two employees for Texas-New Mexico Power Co. in Pecos were among those honored recently by the company as part of its Texas Electric Choice competition, related to T-NP's entry into the electric deregulation market over the past year.

Ricky Barreno and Ernest Matta were among those honored as part of the Ercot Generation Meter Technical Team, and among 60 employees honored in seven categories by the company.

"We celebrate employee achievements every year and it was apparent this year that those needed to be recognized and congratulated predominantly were involved in getting our company ready for the new competitive marketplace in Texas," said Jack Chambers, president and CEO of Texas-New Mexico Power Co. "This ceremony was a salute to them and to three employees with outstanding volunteer efforts."

Two other employees from the company's Fort Stockton office were also honored. Tod Bryant was recognized as a member of the Ercot Generation Meter Technical Team, and Sharon Buck was recognized for her work with the Training Materials Team.


PECOS, Tuesday, April 16, 2002 -- High Mon. 94. Low this morning 63. Forecast for tonight: Mostly  clear. Lows in the mid 50s. South winds 5 to 10 mph.Wed.: Mostly sunny  and breezy. Highs around 90. SW winds 15 to 25 mph. Wed.night:  Partly cloudy. Lows 55 to 60. Thurs.: Partly cloudy and breezy. Highsaround  90. Fri.: Partly cloudy. Lows in the mid 50s. Highs in the mid 80s.


Sylvia Contreras, Dulces Aguilar, Kennith Heath, Stanley Lindsey, Jesus Pacheco, Clara Sample and Josefa Sanchez

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