ALBANY, Ore. — The victims of one of Oregon’s deadliest highway crashes were farmworkers traveling in a van at an hour when agricultural laborers typically commute home after toiling in the harvest, the state’s farmworkers union and Mexican officials said.
Authorities have not yet released the names of the seven who died or the four who were injured when a semitruck ran off Interstate 5 on Thursday and slammed into the van as it was parked on the roadside near Albany, in an agricultural area of the Willamette Valley.
But the union, the Woodburn-based PCUN, said in a statement late Friday that the 11 people in the vehicle were farmworkers and that it has been in contact with some of their families to support them. It also offered condolences to those affected by the tragedy.
“At this time, families are asking for safer roads for workers commuting after a hard day’s work,” Reyna Lopez, the union’s executive director, was quoted as saying.
The Mexican Consulate in Portland also said that the victims were farmworkers in a statement in Spanish that it posted on Facebook and Twitter.
“According to information provided by the office of the Oregon State Police, seven dead were reported in the … accident and four people injured, all of them apparently agricultural workers of Mexican nationality,” the statement said.
The consul traveled to a hospital in Salem, the state capital, to offer assistance to the injured, who had been taken there for “urgent medical attention,” it said.
The consulate also said it was in close communication with law enforcement and trying to locate family members of the deceased. It urged relatives of those killed or hospitalized to call the consulate.
The driver of the semitruck that rammed into the van, Lincoln Clayton Smith, 52, of North Highlands, California, was arrested Friday on suspicion of manslaughter, driving under the influence of intoxicants, reckless driving and assault, police said. He was being held without bail in Marion County Jail.
It wasn’t clear whether Smith’s case had been assigned to the state public defender’s office or a specific attorney. The office didn’t immediately respond to a message asking about that, and a lawyer whose name appears in court documents said she had not formally been assigned the case and could not comment.
At Smith’s arraignment, a district attorney said he had refused a field sobriety test and was unable to focus and answer basic questions, the Salem Statesman Journal reported. The prosecutor also said Smith acknowledged taking “speed” the day before the crash and was in possession of methamphetamine, according to the paper.
The DA said witnesses reported the truck had been weaving on and off the road as it traveled in the northbound lanes Thursday afternoon before it plowed into the van without braking first, according to the Statesman Journal.
The van was then pushed into the back of another truck parked in front of it, Oregon State Police said.
All the victims were passengers in the van. Six died at the scene and one more died after being airlifted to a hospital, according to Oregon State Police. Information on the condition of the four injured has not been made public.
Bodies were seen covered in plastic in a nearby field after the crash, the Albany Democrat-Herald reported.
The crash is one of the deadliest in Oregon in recent years.
A head-on collision on a remote road in Harney County in eastern Oregon in August 2018 killed a family of seven, including five young children. Eight people died in total.
In December 2012, nine people died after a tour bus careened on an icy Interstate 84 and crashed through a guardrail, plunging several hundred feet down a steep embankment. The bus was carrying about 40 people when the accident occurred in an area near Pendleton called Deadman Pass.
Another crash in 1988, also near Albany on I-5, killed seven people and injured 37 more. Two infants were among those killed in the fiery 23-vehicle pileup.
Albany lies between Salem and Eugene and is about 70 miles south of Portland. I-5 is the main north-south interstate highway on the West Coast.