Consuls try to aid crash victims

A lack of information from U.S. officials frustrates consuls.
Wednesday, June 22, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:52 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Consular officials from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — frustrated by a lack of communication with federal immigration officials — spoke Tuesday to coordinate their response to Sunday’s deadly van accident on Interstate 70, a crash that injured 15 people from their countries and killed five people of unknown nationality.

Meanwhile, as survivors of the accident continued to be released from hospitals Tuesday, the man authorities suspect was the van’s driver was taken into custody by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials for possible prosecution.

Gregorio Irias Navas, the consul general for Honduras in Chicago, said representatives from the three consulates planned to meet this morning to decide whether to travel to Columbia to talk with victims and authorities.

He said getting information about accident victims was proving difficult, a concern shared by Patricia Maza-Pittsford, El Salvador’s consul general in Chicago. She said her office is having problems reaching immigration officials and receiving photos of accident victims.

One of the victims, Aminta-Xion Andrade-Santo, 19, of Jocoro, El Salvador, contacted the consulate on her own. She was listed in good condition at University Hospital.

“I know that INS hasn’t even told the girl that she has consulate rights,” Maza-Pittsford said, referring to immigration authorities. “It’s rather disturbing.”

Maza-Pittsford said she contacted Andrade-Santo’s sister Tuesday.

“She was very surprised and very worried to hear about the accident, but we told her about the well-being of her sister and that everything is all right” Maza-Pittsford said.

The crash occurred shortly before 7 a.m. Sunday as the migrant workers were traveling east on I-70 in a 2001 Chevrolet 3500 passenger van designed to carry as many as 14 people. The driver fell asleep and lost control. The van hit the median and overturned several times, ejecting 17 of the 20 passengers.

The person suspected of being the driver, Gelson Mancilla-Santiago, 22, was transferred to Boone County Jail early Tuesday morning before he was turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement at 11:30 a.m. He is being detained for questioning and has been presented to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for possible prosecution on a charge of smuggling illegal immigrants.

Mancilla-Santiago, who already has been deported to Guatemala twice, could also face immigration charges.

Illegal re-entry to the United States after deportation is a felony that can carry a sentence of up to 20 years in prison, said Carl Rusnok, Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office did not indicate what charges, if any, Mancilla-Santiago might face related to immigration or smuggling illegal immigrants. A spokesman also declined to discuss whether he might face charges related to the deaths in the crash.

“I couldn’t speculate about that,” said the spokesman, Don Ledford. “There are so many variables.”

One of the passengers killed in the crash has been identified by the Missouri State Highway Patrol as Julio H. Lopez-Luna, although his age, nationality and address are unknown. Rusnok said the only woman killed has also been identified, although her name is being withheld until her family is notified.

Boone County Medical Examiner Valerie Rao said that as of Tuesday afternoon, none of the deceased had been positively identified by her. Until that happens, the five bodies are being kept in the county morgue.

Rao said she is confident the identity of the victims will be revealed, although the process could take time. Even the identifications of two victims provided by the highway patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, she said, must still be confirmed, whether through fingerprints, by family members or some other means.

“Eventually, we’ll identify everybody,” she said. “There is no hurry on our part.”

Most of the victims were taken to University Hospital, the only Level I trauma center in mid-Missouri. Others were treated at Columbia Regional Hospital, then released.

As of Tuesday evening, Vianeth Murillo-Munguia, 21, was in serious condition; Olman Medina-Banega, 17, was in fair condition, and Eric Deleon-Echeverria, 22, was in good condition, according to the highway patrol and hospital officials.

Saulo Alberez, 46; Jorge Castillo-Lepe, 22; Modesto Mejia-Chacon, 24; Freddy Mendoza-Enriques, 23; Vicienta Pineda, 23; Jorje Ramirez, 16; Melvin Ramirez-Alnazan, age unknown; Gerson Rodriguz-Alonzo, 20, and Jose J. Sapon, 19, have been released. The condition of one victim, whose name remains unknown, could not be verified.

Missourian reporter Emily Halonen contributed to this report.

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