A trip for the University of the Southwest’s golf teams turned into tragedy on Tuesday evening when their van was struck head-on by a Dodge pickup truck, driven by a 13-year-old boy.
Six students, including a Pleasanton High School graduate, and their coach were killed in the crash along a two-lane highway in Andrews County, an area notorious for high traffic from oilfield companies.
The crash also killed the young teen driver and a 38-year-old man traveling in the truck with him.
While the National Transportation Safety Board continues to investigate the crash, officials are focusing on why the 13-year-old was behind the wheel in the first place.
In the meantime, the communities of Pleasanton and USW, a private, four-year Christian university in Hobbs, New Mexico, are reeling from the tragedy.
Here’s what we know about the crash so far.
Who were the students killed?
Most of the students killed in the crash were getting their first taste of life away from home at the private Christian university where on-campus enrollment hovers around 300.
They included freshmen Laci Stone of Nocona, Texas; Travis Garcia of Pleasanton, Texas; Mauricio Sanchez of Mexico; and Tiago Sousa of Portugal.
Also killed were juniors Jackson Zinn of Westminster, Colorado and Karisa Raines of Fort Stockton, Texas, and golf coach Tyler James of Hobbs, New Mexico.
Henrich Siemens, 38, of Seminole County, Texas, and the unidentified 13-year-old boy were in the 2007 Dodge 2500 pickup. They also died at the scene.
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.
Pleasanton’s Garcia remembered as ‘a good friend to all’
Travis Garcia, 19, graduated from Pleasanton High School in 2021, when he led the Eagles’ boys golf team to new heights. Last year, Pleasanton won a region championship and advanced to the state tournament for the first time in school history.
His death has sent shockwaves throughout the Pleasanton community. Garcia’s former coach, Michael Guerra, said the young man was more than an exceptional golfer, he was a member of the family.
“Losing part of my family has just hit me very hard. It’s very sad,” Guerra said.
Garcia was named the high school’s most valuable player in boys golf. He was a leader and mentor to many of his former teammates and friends.
“He was a good friend to all of his teammates,” said Guerra. “It’s just sad that these guys no longer have him in their lives.”
Matt Garcia was Travis’ best friend and spent countless hours on the golf course with him. He spoke with Travis days before the crash.
“He was a really positive person, never was angry, never frustrated with anyone, so that’s kind of what I try to take on,” said Matt Garcia.
What exactly happened in the crash?
NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg on Thursday revealed the 2007 Dodge 2500 pickup truck was driven by a 13-year-old boy, who has not been identified. He said the truck’s left front tire, which was a spare tire, blew out before impact.
At about 8:17 p.m. on Tuesday evening, the pickup truck crossed into the opposite lane on the darkened, two-lane highway before colliding head-on with the van. Both vehicles burst into flames.
NTSB said the van, a 2017 Ford Transit, was towing a box trailer at the time.
Although it was unclear how fast the two vehicles were traveling, “this was clearly a high-speed collision,” Landsberg said.
The crash happened in Andrews County, about 30 miles east of the New Mexico state line. The speed limit at the crash site is 75 mph.
Landsberg said investigators hoped to retrieve enough information from the vehicle’s 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.
Why was a 13-year-old driving the Dodge pickup truck?
It’s not unusual for young teens to drive in that region and other more rural parts of the United States, but in Texas, one must be 14 to begin classroom instruction for a learner’s license.
They must be 15 to receive that provisional license to drive with an instructor or licensed adult in the vehicle.
“Certainly in rural areas there’s a general trend of lower minimum driving ages,” said William Van Tassel, the manager of driver training programs for AAA’s national office. “We see a lot of teen drivers have driving experience by the time they come to a formal driver’s education course because they’ve been driving trucks or tractors or other vehicles on the farm. But when it comes to public roads, the laws are pretty clear: You can’t be out there until you’re legally eligible.”
According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data, there were 47 fatal crashes and 1,057 injury crashes in 2020 involving drivers 13 or younger.
In 2019, the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled was 1.9 times higher in rural areas than in urban areas.
In the area of the Permian Basin, the roads are known to be unsafe.
Gib Stevens, 57, of Hobbs, leads trucking operations for an oilfield servicing company and told AP that much of the traffic is from oilfield businesses.
“For a 13-year-old to be driving that road, that was dumb,” Stevens said.
Why was the team in Texas?
The teams had been taking part in a golf tournament hosted by Midland College at Ranchland Hills Golf Course in Midland.
Eleven schools were participating in the tournament, and play was canceled on Wednesday due to the accident.
In a statement, Midland College President Dr. Steve Thomas shared his condolences.
“This is a devastating loss to that school, and words cannot express how deeply hurt we feel for their loss. I have ordered the MC flag to fly at half-staff through Friday to honor the memories of Coach Tyler James and his team,” he said.
USW created a donation website for families and victims
The University of the Southwest on Wednesday created a fund for victims. The donation website supports victims and their families.
For more information, click here.
University golfers were bound by faith
Aside from golf, what tied the teammates and their families together was their faith. Social media pages have been inundated with a steady stream of offerings of prayers and condolences from fellow college golfers, community members and others.
A short drive from the campus, local golfers set up a memorial at the course where the team practice. Groundskeepers placed flowers, golf balls and a hand-made sign with a Christian cross and the initials USW.
“We have a memorial. It’s the very least we could do for the players and of course coach James,” said Rockwind Community Links Manager Ben Kirkes. “It’s a tough time.”
Kirkes said he saw the team members nearly every day, and was close with them.
“These kids were great kids and they were great, great community members,” Kirkes said. “They were polite and they were just a pleasure to be around.”
Gov. Abbott, Texas leaders have since shared their condolences
Gov. Greg Abbott was among the Texas leaders who shared their condolences on Wednesday.
He issued the following statement:
“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 Texas Department of Public Safety is working closely with local officials to investigate this accident, and we offer our full support to the University of the Southwest and the state of New Mexico. I ask Texans to join Cecilia and me in praying for the families of those whose lives were lost and for the recovery of two critically injured students.”
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick added, “Our hearts go out to the families of the victims and the entire University of the Southwest community during this difficult time.”