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Mexican citizens were on their way to work on a farm in Florida when a pickup truck hit their bus, killing eight people

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By MIKE SCHNEIDER and TERRY SPENCER Associated Press
OCALA, Fla. (AP) — Mexican citizens were among those who went to work at a watermelon farm in Florida on Tuesday when the bus they were traveling in was struck and crashed, killing eight people, officials said.
Alicia Bárcena, Mexico’s Minister of Foreign Relations, said Tuesday via the social media platform She did not say how many of the more than four dozen people on board were from Mexico.
The Mexican Consulate in Orlando was working to learn more and provide support, according to a post on X. The Florida Highway Patrol said the names of the people who died would be released after family members were notified.
The Florida Highway Patrol arrested the driver of a pickup truck that crashed into the farmworker bus. Troopers said Bryan Maclean Howard, 41, faces eight charges of manslaughter by drunken driving for Tuesday morning’s crash. No further details have been released, including what substance Howard allegedly affected.
It was not immediately known whether Howard has an attorney who could comment on his behalf. Attempts to reach Howard were unsuccessful Tuesday. State records show he has previous arrests for allegedly driving with a suspended license, leaving the scene of an accident and possession of marijuana.
Troopers say Howard was driving a 2001 Ford Ranger crossing the center line on State Road 40, a two-lane highway that passes through horse farms. The truck rammed the bus sideways, causing it to veer off the road around 6:40 am. It plowed through a fence and into a tree and then rolled. In addition to the eight deaths, at least forty were injured.
The accident happened about 80 miles north of Orlando as workers were en route to Cannon Farms in Dunnellon. The bus ended up on its side, the windows were smashed and the emergency rear door and top hatch open. The truck came to a stop on the side of the road, causing the airbag to explode and causing extensive damage to the driver’s side.
Andres Sequera, director of mission and ministry at AdventHealth Hospitals, told reporters that the injured workers who were able to be visited by chaplains were “in good spirits about what they experienced.”
“We were able to provide support, presence and prayer when it was asked of us,” he said.
No one answered the phone at Olvera Trucking on Tuesday afternoon. The company recently advertised for a temporary driver who would bus workers to the watermelon fields and operate harvesting equipment. The wage was $14.77 per hour.
A Labor Department document shows that Olvera recently asked 43 H-2A workers to harvest watermelons at Cannon Farms this month. The company again offered a base rate of $14.77 per 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 legal requirements to bring foreigners into the country to fill temporary agricultural jobs. According to the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Florida farms employ more H-2A workers than any other state, about 50,000 per year.
“Thank you to everyone who reached out and offered condolences, help and prayers” for the families and loved ones involved in the crash, Cannon Farms posted on its Facebook page, adding that the family-owned business would remain closed through Wednesday .
Cannon Farms grows peanuts and watermelons, which it sends to supermarkets in the U.S. and Canada.
Federal statistics show that vehicle crashes were the leading cause of work-related deaths among farmworkers in 2022, the latest year available. They were responsible for 81 of the 171 fatalities. It was not immediately known whether the bus had seat belts.
Authorities in several states have pushed for stricter rules for the safety of farm workers, the vast majority of whom are migrants.
The Labor Department has announced new seat belt requirements for employer vehicles used by agricultural workers on temporary visas, in addition to other worker protections that take effect June 28. The Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association is opposed, calling the seat belt requirement “impractical.”
State law requires seat belts for transporting farmworkers in smaller vehicles, those weighing less than 10,000 pounds.
A GoFundMe campaign organized by the Farmworker Association of Florida to support accident victims and their families had raised about $20,000 of a $50,000 goal as of Tuesday evening.
“Farmworkers are often forgotten, but it is important not to forget farmworkers, especially during such difficult times,” the post said.
Two groups advocating for farmworkers released statements calling for stricter laws to protect them from harm.
“It’s too easy to dismiss this as just another accident,” said Asia Clermont, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens in Florida. “Florida must take every step possible to protect its essential workers, who are people and the backbone of the state’s economy.”
Ty Joplin of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers said transportation laws for farmworkers are often not enforced.
“While accidents will happen, protecting workers during transportation with mandatory and enforceable safety features, such as seat belts and safety inspections, can reduce injuries and deaths,” he said.
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Spencer reported from Fort Lauderdale.