HOUSTON (AP) — 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 said he called the sheriff’s offices for both Uvalde and Real counties while he followed the truck 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, who has been identified by the Texas Department of Public Safety as 20-year-old Jack Dillon Young, of Leakey, Texas.
“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 quoted the pickup driver as saying.
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.
Young remains hospitalized following the crash. Twelve people died at the scene, authorities said. Another bus passenger died at a San Antonio hospital.
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 where Wednesday’s crash occurred in a rural area. 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-ten driving fatalities in 2015 were caused by some kind of distraction, the U.S Department of Transportation said.
The death toll of the Texas crash was high despite the fact that most, if not all, of the aged occupants of the van were wearing seatbelts, Morrison said. The driver and front passenger wore three-point lap-and-shoulder belts while those in the seats behind wore lap belts only, she said.
The First Baptist Church of New Braunfels, Texas, said its members were returning from a three-day retreat at the Alto Frio Baptist Encampment in Leakey, about 9 miles (15 kilometers) from the crash site.
It is not yet clear if the bus passengers were wearing seatbelts or even if the minibus was fitted with suitable restraints.
The wreck occurred along a curve in the road where the speed limit is 65 mph, according to DPS officials.