Families of Mexican farmworker bus crash victims mourn the loss of their loved ones

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — In San Miguel Almolonga, a rural farming community in Mexico, a mourning family recited prayers while grieving the loss of a father who came to Florida under a temporary visa to support his family.

Yamilet Pérez Ríos, the 14-year-old daughter of Manuel Pérez Ríos, wept as she said she is now left without her father, who died in a bus crash early Tuesday north of Orlando, Florida.

“He went to seek a better life for me, for my mother, a week ago, and now they say my dad is dead,” she said.

Manuel Pérez Ríos, 46, was one of eight farmworkers killed in a bus crash Tuesday on the way to a watermelon patch at Cannon Farms in Dunnellon. He was a father of four children and had four grandchildren.

Early Tuesday, Bryan Howard, 41, crossed the center line of State Road 40 in his 2001 Ford Ranger and sideswiped a bus carrying 53 farmworkers, which then veered the bus of the two-lane road. The bus hit a tree and rolled over. Howard failed several sobriety tests and was arrested, the Florida Highway Patrol said.

The Tuesday morning bus crash is still under investigation by police. On Wednesday morning, Howard pleaded not guilty to driving under the influence-manslaughter charges in the deaths of eight farmworkers.

Marion County court records show Howard has had at least three crashes and numerous traffic tickets dating back to 2006, including one citation for crossing the center line. His license has been suspended at least three times, the latest in 2021 for getting too many citations within a year. In 2013, he was convicted of grand theft. A year later, his probation was revoked after he tested positive for cocaine.

The crash injured dozens of farmworkers, who were hired by a Mexican-American farmer to work on the watermelon farm under temporary or seasonal visas. About 16 farmworkers were taken to Adventhealth Ocala. Lauren Rozyla, a spokesperson for the facility, said 14 were discharged on Tuesday, and the remaining two were transferred to other facilities.

Dash and body camera video from a Marion County deputy showed dazed farmworkers standing in the field and several injured lying near the bus, as firefighters and paramedics went inside the large overturned vehicle.

Manuel Pérez Ríos was among six dead who have been identified, with two farmworkers remaining unidentified: Evarado Ventura Hernández, 30; Cristian Salazar Villeda, 24; Alfredo Tovar Sánchez, 20; Isaías Miranda Pascal, 21; and José Heriberto Fraga Acosta, 27.

About 44 Mexican citizens were on the bus earlier this week, said Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Wednesday. Simón Pérez Cabrera, the father of Manuel Pérez Ríos, said that his family was poor and lived off farm work, which is why his son went to the United States to work.

Magdalena Rios, wife of Manuel Pérez Ríos, said this was her husband’s first trip to do farm work under a temporary visa in the United States.

“He had lots of hopes. He wanted to work,” Magdalena Rios said.

Gamaliel Marcel, of Tallahassee, said Wednesday that he was childhood friends with Salazar Villeda in Mexico. Marcel said Salazar Villeda was married in March and had a 5-year-old daughter.

“I feel so bad, especially because I knew him my whole life,” he said. “He was always the most respectful, but brought out a smile when you needed it.”

Evarado Ventura Hernández’s mother, Rosalina Hernández Martínez, said Wednesday that her son had told her the work he did on Florida farms was “very hard,” but that he was happy.

“It hurts,” she said. “A piece of my heart is gone.”


José María Álvarez reported from San Miguel Almolonga, Mexico, in southern Oaxaca state.