HOBBS, N.M. — 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.
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, the man traveling with him, six New Mexico college students and a golf coach.
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 east of the New Mexico state line.
University of the Southwest spokeswoman Maria Duarte declined to comment on the NTSB’s announcement about the young driver, citing the ongoing investigation.
The men’s and women’s 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, 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 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 Mauricio 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.
Stone’s mother wrote of her loss Wednesday on Facebook.
“She has been an absolute ray of sunshine during this short time on earth,” Chelsi Stone said in a post. “We will never be the same after this and we just don’t understand how this happened to our amazing, beautiful, smart, joyful girl.”
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 located 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.
“These kids were great kids and they were great, great community members,” Kirkes said.
The university said on Twitter that counseling and religious services would be available on campus.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said on Facebook that she is “deeply saddened” by the loss of life.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also expressed sympathy, saying: “We grieve with the loved ones of the individuals whose lives were horrifically taken too soon in this fatal vehicle crash near Andrews last night.”
The teams had been taking part in a golf tournament at Midland College, about 315 miles west of Dallas. Midland College canceled Wednesday’s play because of the crash.