HOBBS, N.M. – Authorities investigating a fiery head-on crash in West Texas don’t know why a 13-year-old boy was driving while his father sat in the passenger seat of a pickup truck that crossed into the oncoming lane and collided with a passenger van, killing nine people.
The young teen who has not been identified died in the crash along with his father, 38-year-old Henrich Siemens, and six members of a New Mexico college golf team and their coach. The cause remains under investigation, though National Transportation Safety Board officials have said the truck’s front tire, a spare, blew out before the crash.
It's the latest tragedy for the family of the father and son, of Seminole, Texas.
Community members first rallied around Siemens and his wife, Agatha, in October, when a fire that started in the kitchen destroyed the home where they had lived for a decade. Seminole is a rural community of around 7,500 people, some of whom first relocated to the area in the 1970s with other Mennonite families who started farming and ranching operations.
While the couple and their children escaped the fire without injury, Agatha wrote on her Facebook page at the time that they had lost everything, including one of the family pets.
After the crash, Agatha Siemens shared family photos on social media, saying her husband was the love of her life and that she missed her son. She did not return messages seeking comment.
NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg on Thursday revealed the truck was driven by the child.
After the tire blew, the pickup truck crossed into the opposite lane on the darkened, two-lane highway before colliding with the van. Both vehicles burst into flames.
Although it was unclear how fast the two vehicles were traveling, “this was clearly a high-speed collision,” Landsberg said.
The speed limit at the crash site is 75 mph (120 kph), according to the agency.
Landsberg said investigators hoped to retrieve enough information from the vehicles' recorders, if they survived, to understand what happened. He said many in the van were not wearing seatbelts and at least one was ejected from the vehicle.
It's not unusual for young teens to drive in that region and other more rural parts of the United States. 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.
Investigators have not yet determined why the youth was behind the wheel, Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Steven Blanco said Friday.
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.
The University of the Southwest students, including one from Portugal and one from Mexico, and the coach were returning from a golf tournament in Midland, Texas, when the vehicles collided Tuesday night. Two Canadian students were hospitalized in critical condition.
University of the Southwest spokeswoman Maria Duarte declined to comment on the NTSB’s announcement about the young driver, citing the ongoing investigation. The private Christian college is located in Hobbs, New Mexico, near the Texas state line.
The golf teams were traveling in a 2017 Ford Transit van that was towing a box trailer when it collided with the 2007 Dodge 2500 pickup, according to NTSB spokesperson Eric Weiss.
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 Aguascalientes, 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 Algarve, Portugal.
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 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.
“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.
A memorial was set up Wednesday at the golf course near campus where the team practices, with flowers, golf balls and a handmade sign. Counseling and religious services were made available on campus.
About 150 people turned out Thursday evening to remember Jackson Zinn at Texas Roadhouse, a 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, which soon disappeared into the horizon.
Bleed reported from Little Rock, Arkansas, and Snow reported from Phoenix. Associated Press writers Jake Bleiberg and Jamie Stengle in Dallas, Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, 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.