CERES — Three men died just before dawn Monday after the car they were riding in was struck from behind by a big rig on southbound Highway 99.
There were six men from Modesto in the Cadillac that was hit. Three others in the vehicle were taken to nearby hospitals, according to California Highway Patrol officer Chuck Leon.
The driver of the big rig, which careened off the freeway and overturned down an embankment, escaped injury.
Truck driver Varinder Badial, 43, of Yuba City told officers he was traveling about 57 mph when he hit the Cadillac in the slow lane. The car was traveling very slowly or was stopped when it was hit, possibly because of a flat tire, Leon said.
The impact caused the back of the Cadillac to cave in, killing three of four people in the back seat. At least one was not wearing a seat belt, but that did not contribute to the deaths, Leon said. The fourth passenger in the back seat, who was on the far right side, 18-year-old Bryan Aranda, escaped with moderate head injuries.
All the men in the car were migrant workers on their way to install sprinklers for a local farmer. Because the Stanislaus County coroner's office had several different names and birth dates on various documents, it was difficult to identify the victims. Deputy coroner Tom Killian was waiting on confirmation from family to identify one of the dead men.
The two men he identified were Jose Jaime Botello-Herrera and Erasmo Tello Jaimes. Botello-Herrera and the unidentified man were in their 20s, and Jaimes was in his early 50s. All three men lived together in west Modesto.
The driver, Rogelio Reyes Leon, 53, suffered major injuries, and the front seat passenger, Antonio Lopez, 26, had moderate injuries.
The accident occurred about 6:20 a.m. and backed up traffic in the southbound lanes for miles. The middle and right lanes were closed for hours.
Referring to the collision, Leon warned drivers, "If you are having any mechanical problems, safely make it to the center median or the right shoulder because people are not expecting other cars to be stopped in the middle of the roadway. Any time you are traveling lower than the normal speed, have your hazard lights on."
Officers said they do not believe the driver of the big rig was under the influence of drugs or alcohol or using a cell phone at the time of the collision.
Bee staff writer Erin Tracy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2366. Follow her on Twitter, @ModestoBeeCrime.