HOBBS, N.M. (AP) — A 13-year-old was driving the pickup truck that struck a van in West Texas in a fiery collision that killed nine people, including six members of a college golf team and their coach, a National Transportation Safety Board official said Thursday.
The child and a man traveling in the truck also died.
The truck’s left front tire, which was a spare tire, also blew out before impact, said NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg.
Although it was unclear how fast the two vehicles were traveling, “this was clearly a high-speed collision,” Landsberg said. He added investigators hoped to retrieve enough information from the vehicle’s recorders to better understand what happened.
One must be 14 in Texas to start taking classroom courses for a learner’s license and 15 to receive that provisional license to drive with an instructor or licensed adult in the vehicle. Department of Public Safety Sgt. Victor Taylor said a 13-year-old driving would be breaking the law.
The pickup truck crossed into the opposite lane on a darkened, two-lane highway before colliding head-on with a van, killing the boy, a man traveling with him, six New Mexico college students and a golf coach.
It’s not uncommon for people in rural parts of the U.S. to learn to drive when they’re young. But the news that a 13-year-old was behind the wheel in the Texas crash put a renewed focus on the practice.
The University of the Southwest students, including one from Portugal and one from Mexico, and the coach were returning from a golf tournament when the vehicles collided Tuesday night. Two Canadian students were hospitalized in critical condition.
The NTSB sent an investigative team to the crash site in Texas’ Andrews County, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) east of the New Mexico state line. While the area is rural, its roads can often be busy with traffic related to agriculture and oil and gas development.
University of the Southwest spokeswoman Maria Duarte declined to comment on the NTSB’s announcement about the young driver, citing the ongoing investigation.
The golf teams were traveling in a 2017 Ford Transit van that was towing a box trailer when it collided with the truck, and both vehicles burst into flames, according to NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss.
He said the vehicles crashed on a two-lane asphalt highway where the speed limit is 75 mph (120 kph), though investigators have not yet determined how fast either vehicle was traveling.
The Texas Department of Public Safety identified the deceased as: Golf coach Tyler James, 26, of Hobbs, New Mexico; and players Mauricio Sanchez, 19, of Mexico; Travis Garcia, 19, of Pleasanton, Texas; Jackson Zinn, 22, of Westminster, Colorado; Karisa Raines, 21, of Fort Stockton, Texas; Laci Stone, 18, of Nocona, Texas; and Tiago Sousa, 18, of Portugal.
Also killed were Henrich Siemens, 38, of Seminole County, Texas, and the unidentified 13-year-old boy who were in the 2007 Dodge 2500 pickup.
Critically injured aboard the van were Canadian students Dayton Price, 19, of Mississauga, Ontario, and Hayden Underhill, 20, of Amherstview, Ontario. Both were taken by helicopter to the University Medical Center in Lubbock, about 110 miles (180 kilometers) to the northeast.
“They are both stable and recovering and every day making more and more progress,” University of the Southwest Provost Ryan Tipton said Thursday of the two injured students.
“One of the students is eating chicken soup,” said Tipton, calling their recovery “a game of inches.”
Tipton said University President Quint Thurman visited the students’ parents at the hospital, illustrating the close community at the college with only about 350 on-campus students.
Underhill’s brother Drew said their parents, Ken and Wendy, flew to Texas.
“Hockey was a big part of life for a while, but his true passion is golf,” Drew Underhill said.
On Thursday evening, about 150 people turned out to remember Zinn at Texas Roadhouse, a Hobbs restaurant where he worked and met his girlfriend of five months.
“We met here exactly at this table,” said Maddy Russell, 20, of Hobbs. “He was my heart.”
The mourners released around 100 blue and orange balloons into the cold, whipping wind of eastern New Mexico, and they soon disappeared into the horizon.
The Mexican Federation of Golf posted an online note of condolence to the loved ones of Sanchez.
Sousa was from Portugal's southern coast, where he graduated from high school last summer before heading to college in the U.S., said Renata Afonso, head of the Escola Secundária de Loulé.
"Any school would be delighted to have had him as a student,” she said.
Team member Jasmin Collum had been scheduled to play but at the last minute decided instead to visit her parents in Houston, her mother said.
“We knew all those people on board,” Tonya Collum said. "Basically the whole team is gone or in the hospital.”
The University of the Southwest is a private, Christian college in Hobbs, New Mexico, near the state line with Texas.
A memorial was set up Wednesday at the course near campus where the team practices. There were flowers, golf balls and a handmade sign with a cross and the initials USW.
“It’s the very least we could to for the players, and of course Coach James,” said Rockwind Community Links Manager Ben Kirkes.
The university said on Twitter that counseling and religious services would be available on campus.
The teams had been taking part in a golf tournament at Midland College, about 315 miles (505 kilometers) west of Dallas. Midland College canceled Wednesday’s play because of the crash.
This story has been updated to correct the last name of Henrich Siemens and to remove reference to him as the driver of the pickup truck.
Bleed reported from Little Rock, Arkansas, and Snow reported from Phoenix. Associated Press writers Jake Bleiberg and Jamie Stengle in Dallas, Rob Gillies in Toronto and Barry Hatton in Lisbon contributed to this report.
Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.