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Driver, speed cited in fiery 2005 tanker crash

A tractor-trailer carrying a nearly full load of gasoline was driving so recklessly on a highway ramp one night in 2005, even a 6-year-old in a nearby car was alarmed, his mother said.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A tractor-trailer carrying a nearly full load of gasoline was driving so recklessly on a highway ramp one night in 2005, even a 6-year-old in a nearby car was alarmed, his mother said.

"Why is he driving so crazy?" Maria Thompson told investigators her son asked, moments before the tanker skidded out of control, flipped onto an oncoming car and burst into flames. It was likely traveling at least 60 mph in the 35 mph zone, according to court documents.

The car's four occupants, who were relatives, died, including the mother of Dallas Stars forward Jeff Halpern. Three burned to death in the explosion. A fourth leaped from the car, only to drown in a nearby pond, according to the Broward County medical examiner.

Nearly two years after the Feb. 11, 2005 accident, Michael and Lisa Klein, the children of crash victims Alan and Deborah Klein, are suing the Floval Oil Corp., which owned the truck, and driver Flavio Santisteban. They say the company forced Santisteban to drive too many hours and make too many stops during his nightly runs, and that it led to their parents' deaths.

Santisteban, 35, faces four criminal charges of vehicular homicide and is scheduled to stand trial Jan. 8. The Highway Patrol concluded that Santisteban — who had been cited for driving violations at least 10 times previously — operated the truck "with reckless disregard for human life." He has pleaded not guilty and is free on $10,000 bail.

The Kleins' civil lawsuit — two others have been filed by the families of crash victims Gloria Halpern and Anita Epstein — seeks an unspecified amount of damages. The lawyer for Floval and Santisteban in the civil case, Patrick Gent, declined comment on the lawsuit's allegations, and Santisteban's criminal lawyer did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Forrest Baker, a transportation expert hired by the Kleins' lawyer, Ervin Gonzalez, concluded in a report on the accident that Santisteban had worked 128 hours without a day off from Jan. 31, 2005, until the crash happened on Feb. 11 — more than 10 hours a day, on average. If the accident had not happened, he would have worked about 80 hours over a seven-day period, Baker estimated.

Federal safety rules allow truckers who haul hazardous cargo to drive a maximum of 60 hours over a seven-day period — a limit exceeded by Santisteban after only four days that fateful week, Baker found.

Baker also concluded that Santisteban only met the legal driving limit for nine of the 42 weeks he had worked for Floval, working more than 80 hours during nine other weeks and more than 90 hours one week. He said the driver was often forced to squeeze eight or nine stops into his nightly runs, which stretched over 200 miles or more.

In his report, Baker said that shows "a documented contempt, on the part of Floval Oil Corp., not only for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations but also for the safety of the general public. Floval routinely operated 9,000-gallon Molotov cocktails on the streets of the Miami-Dade County area with tired drivers."

Hundreds of safety violations recorded
After the crash, the state Department of Transportation slapped Floval with 483 safety rules violations, most of them for failure to require its drivers to keep records of their on-duty hours. The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the accident but has not yet released its report.

"You shouldn't have the incentive of delivering more in less hours," Gonzalez said. "Employers can't make people drive too many hours. They can't push them to speed."

Santisteban tested negative for the presence of alcohol or drugs. In a brief statement to the Highway Patrol shortly after the crash, he said he thought his rig was struck from the rear by another vehicle on the ramp, but investigators found no evidence of that.

Driver fatigue is frequently cited as a key cause of crashes involving large trucks. The U.S. Department of Transportation, in a study released in March, found that fatigue was an "associated factor" in crashes involving 5,000 large trucks from April 2001 to December 2003.

Lisa and Michael Klein have had a tough time coming to terms with the deaths of their parents in such a brutal and sudden manner, said their attorney. Lisa Klein, 24, said she has been unable to spend the night at her parents' New Jersey house, where her 21-year-old brother lives, without breaking down in tears.

"I'm not as angry, but I'm definitely very sad still, very much," she said. "Any time I talk or something comes up involving my parents I get very emotional."