Texas church bus crash: Witness account highlights dangers of texting while driving

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A witness who claims the driver of a pickup truck that collided with a church minibus in rural Texas, killing 13 people on Wednesday, acknowledged he had been texting while driving — highlighting the danger of being on the phone behind the wheel.

Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Conrad Hein wouldn’t comment Friday on whether texting might have played a role in the Wednesday collision on a two-lane road about 75 miles west of San Antonio, near the town of Concan. But officials have said the truck driver appeared to have crossed the center line.

Jennifer Morrison, the investigator in charge of the team from the National Transportation Safety Board, would only say that distracted driving will be among the issues investigated.

The witness, Jody Kuchler, a 55-year-old self-employed welder, told The Associated Press he and his girlfriend were driving back to their home in the nearby town of Leakey when he came across a truck that was driving erratically across the road.

"He kept going off the road and into oncoming traffic and he just kept doing that," said Kuchler, who first shared the account of what happened with the San Antonio Express-News.

Kuchler, who followed the truck for at least 15 minutes, said he called the sheriff’s offices for both Uvalde and Real counties and told them "they needed to get him off the road before he hit somebody."

Kuchler told the AP he witnessed the crash and afterward, he checked on both the bus and the truck and was able to speak with the driver of the truck, who the Department of Public Safety has identified as 20-year-old Jack Dillon Young, of Leakey.

"He said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I was texting.’ I said, ‘Son, do you know what you just did?’ He said, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry,’" Kuchler recalled.

The wreck on Wednesday occurred along a curve in the road where the speed limit is 65 mph, according to Department of Public Safety officials. The bus occupants — members of First Baptist Church of New Braunfels in Texas — were returning from a three-day retreat in Leakey, about 9 miles from where the crash happened.

Twelve people on the bus died at the scene, authorities said. Another died at a hospital. One bus passenger remains hospitalized in serious but stable condition, according to the church. Young, the driver of the pickup, also remains hospitalized.

While dozens of cities across Texas prohibit the practice, there is no statewide ban on texting while driving. Local ordinances however may not have applied in the rural area where the crash occurred. Laws in 46 other states ban sending or reading email, using apps or engaging in other use of the internet while driving.

The Republican-controlled Texas Legislature approved a statewide ban in 2011 but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Rick Perry, who characterized such prohibitions as government micromanagement and said educating drivers was the key to deterrence. A similar proposal passed the Texas House a few weeks ago but has yet to make it to a Senate floor vote.

The number of motor vehicle deaths in the U.S. last year topped 40,000 for the first time since 2007, according to the National Safety Council. The number of vehicle crash deaths in Texas rose 7 percent last year to 3,464, slightly higher than the national rise. One-in-10 driving fatalities in 2015 were caused by some kind of distraction, the U.S Department of Transportation said.

One family recalled their last moments with their loved ones before the deadly wreck in an interview with FOX San Antonio.

“It was a great day. One we hadn’t had in a long time,” Charlotte Banks told the television station about the last day with her 83-year-old mother Avis Banks.

Banks said her mother was like her superwoman, she kept the family together.

As reality sets in, Banks told Fox San Antonio she’ll forever hold the last memory she has telling her mother "I love you".

“If you forgot to tell somebody today you love them you might want to stop and pick up the phone really quick. If you are texting and you are so busy with those little thumbs, make sure the last thing you tell them when you get off is you love them,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.