A Merced man has been arrested on suspicion of vehicular manslaughter after two people died in a crash on Highway 99 in Ripon early Wednesday.
Four others have major injuries, including three people with major head trauma, according to the California Highway Patrol.
The two people who died have been identified as Gabriela Santiago, 20, and Melecio S. Calisto, 26, both of Merced.
Officials say Ambrosio Martinez, 21, was driving a 1999 Chevy Astro van just before 5 a.m. when the crash happened.
Six of the van's passengers were not wearing seat belts. The man who was wearing a seat belt, Eusebio M. Lopez, 33, of Merced was treated at the scene for minor lacerations. Everyone else in the van who survived the crash required care at area hospitals.
According to authorities, Martinez was driving north on the highway near the Jack Tone Road exit at 65 to 70 mph. He was in the middle lane and attempted to cross to the Jack Tone exit, according to the CHP. As he moved to the right, he collided with a tractor-trailer driven by Jose L. Ramirez, 34, of Lemoore. Ramirez was not injured.
As the van hit the big rig, according to the CHP, the van turned onto its side and began to roll. Three people were thrown from the van. Two of them, Santiago and Calisto, were pronounced dead at the scene.
The name of a man who was thrown from the van was not clear from the CHP report. But three people suffered major head trauma in the crash: Arellano Ramirez, 27; Luisa J. Garcia, 27; and Agapito Peralta, 21. All three live in Merced.
Martinez, the driver, suffered head trauma and was taken to San Joaquin General Hospital, CHP officer Adrian Quintero said. He had memory loss and a concussion, and might not be booked into jail until this morning, he said. Hospital workers wanted to observe him and make sure he was stable before releasing him, he said.
Alcohol and drugs were not a factor in the collision, but Martinez did not have a license. Officers were waiting at the hospital Wednesday evening with Martinez because they were concerned he might be a flight risk, Quintero said.
Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2235.