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8 dead, at least 40 injured as farmworkers' bus overturns west of Ocala

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The driver of a pickup truck that crashed into a farmworker bus in Marion County early Tuesday, killing eight, has been arrested on charges of driving under the influence-manslaughter, authorities said.

At least 40 more people were injured when the 2001 Ford Ranger driven by Bryan Maclean Howard, 41, crossed into the center line on State Road 40, a straight but somewhat hilly two-lane road that passes through horse farms, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

The truck sideswiped the bus at 6:40 a.m., causing it to veer off the road, crash through a fence and into a tree about 500 feet west of Southwest 148 Court. No further details of the crash were released, including what substance allegedly left Howard impaired.

Fifty-three workers had been headed to Cannon Farms, which is eight miles away in Dunnellon and has been harvesting watermelons. The bus ended up on its side, with its windows smashed and its emergency rear door and top hatch open. The truck came to a stop at the side of the road, with its air bag blown and extensive damage to the driver's side.

State troopers assigned to the FHP Northern Region Specialized Investigations and Reconstruction Team (SIRT) arrested Howard at 1:47 p.m. on eight counts of driving under the influence-manslaughter - one for each person killed in the crash.

"Our sympathies and prayers are with the families of the deceased," Dave Kerner, executive director of the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, said in a statement announcing the arrest. Kerner also said the Florida Highway Patrol would conduct a thorough and exhaustive crash and criminal investigation.

According to state records, Howard has previous arrests for driving with a suspended license, leaving the scene of an accident and marijuana possession.

Federal statistics show that vehicle crashes were the leading cause of job-related deaths among farmworkers in 2022, the latest year available.

It was not immediately known if the bus had seat belts.

"A lot of the buses are run down," said Dominique O'Conner, the climate justice organizer at the Farm Workers Association of Florida. "Often, they don't have those safety measures."

Authorities in several states have been pushing for greater regulations for the safety of farmworkers, who are overwhelmingly migrants.

It is unknown if all the workers on the bus were migrants. The Mexican consulate in Orlando said it was making help available to any of the workers who are from its country.

The U.S. Labor Department announced new seat belt requirements for employer vehicles used for farmworkers on temporary visas, among other worker protections that take effect June 28. The Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association has called the seat belt requirement "impractical."

State law requires seat belts for farmworker transport using smaller vehicles, weighing less than 10,000 pounds.

Cannon Farms describes itself as a family owned operation that has farmed its land for more than 100 years. The company now focuses on peanuts and watermelons, which it sends to grocery stores across the U.S. and Canada.

"We will be closed today out of respect to the losses and injuries endured early this morning in the accident that took place to the Olvera Trucking Harvesting Corp.," Cannon Farms announced on its Facebook page. "Please pray with us for the families and the loved ones involved in this tragic accident. We appreciate your understanding at this difficult time."

No one answered the phone at Olvera Trucking on Tuesday. The company recently advertised for a temporary driver who would bus workers to watermelon fields and then operate harvesting equipment. The pay was $14.77 an hour.

A Labor Department document shows Olvera recently applied for 43 H-2A workers to harvest watermelons at Cannon Farms this month. The company again offered a base rate of $14.77 an hour, with promises of housing and transportation to and from the fields.

The H-2A program allows U.S. employers or agents who meet certain regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals into the country to fill temporary agricultural jobs. Florida farms employ more H-2A workers than any other state, about 50,000 a year, according to the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association.

The Mexican Consulate in Orlando was on the scene to provide support, according to Alicia Bárcena, Mexico's foreign relations secretary, who said via the social media platform X, "I am sorry to report that a tragic automotive accident happened in Florida with Mexican agricultural workers involved."

Andres Sequera, a director of mission and ministry for AdventHealth hospitals, told reporters that the injured workers who could be visited by chaplains "were in good spirits for what they have been through."

"We were able to provide support, presence, prayer when it was asked of us," Sequera said.

A GoFundMe campaign organized by the Farmworker Association of Florida to support accident victims and their families had raised about $5,000 of a $50,000 goal by Tuesday evening.

"Farmworkers tend to be forgotten, but it's important not to forget farmworkers, especially during such difficult times," the post said.

The association also said a vigil was set for 6 p.m. Wednesday at a location to be determined.

Two advocacy groups issued statements calling for stricter laws to protect farmworkers.

"It is too easy to dismiss this as just another accident," said Asia Clermont, Florida director for the League of United Latin American Citizens. "Florida must take every possible step to protect its essential workers, who are human beings and the backbone of the state's economy."

Ty Joplin of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers said transportation laws are often unenforced.

"While accidents will happen, protecting workers while transporting them with mandatory and enforceable safety provisions, like seat belts and safety inspections, can reduce injuries and deaths," Joplin said.

WUFT News reporter Liana Handler and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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