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July 20, 2011

5 dead, 10 hurt in NY tractor vs. van crash

By Ben Dobbin 
Associated Press

BENTON, N.Y. — The crash that killed five people in a van carrying Amish farmers in upstate New York took hours to untangle, as rescue crews struggled to free victims from the wreckage lodged under a tractor and to identify victims who typically don't carry identification.

Six people remained hospitalized Wednesday, a day after the collision between a car passing the slow moving tractor and the van full of 14 people touring rural Finger Lakes farms to study techniques compatible with their religious beliefs.

The 42-year-old driver of the car has been charged with criminally negligent homicide and driving while intoxicated.

"It's just a horrific tragedy," Yates County Sheriff Ronald Spike said, adding that it strained the emergency medical services and fire departments.

"There was a lot of hard work at the scene," he said.

It took a long time to free the victims because "the van ended up entangled and underneath the large tractor with the spray equipment on it," Spike said.

The task of identifying the dead and injured was difficult because many Amish do not carry identification, Spike said. One of the survivors was able to give them some information at the scene and a group of Amish residents from the Jasper-Woodhull area helped identify a female victim at a hospital. Spike said the victims in the Tuesday afternoon crash were all from Steuben County.

The tractor was carrying a large spraying implement. At least four people were stuck in the wreckage before they were removed by emergency responders who used power cutting tools to free them. Four hours after the crash, responders were still removing pieces of the van from under the tractor and loading it on a flatbed truck.

"It's probably one of the worst accidents we've had in this county that I can remember," Spike said.

Steven Eldridge of Penn Yan was arraigned after the crash Tuesday on five counts of criminally negligent homicide, driving while intoxicated, reckless driving, unsafe passing, speed not reasonable and prudent, and failure to keep right after passing. Eldridge was held on $250,000 cash bail or $125,000 bond. His next court date is Friday.

Five people in the van carrying the 13 farmers and their driver were on a tour organized through Cornell University were pronounced dead at the scene. Of the nine people taken to area hospitals, the six still hospitalized Wednesday morning were in either satisfactory or guarded condition.

"In passing, (the car) glanced off the van and went off the highway and the van ended up going underneath the farm tractor," Spike said. The car tried to go around the tractor in a no-passing zone near where the 55-mph stretch of two-lane blacktop curves and signs recommend reducing speed to 45 mph.

The crash happened 43 miles southeast of Rochester and about 30 miles northeast of the spot in Steuben County where a tour bus crashed Sunday on Interstate 390, killing two people and injuring 35. It's a mostly agricultural swath of land, and the road where Tuesday's accident happened carves its way between large soybean fields.

A dispatcher said four helicopters, several fire departments and about a dozen ambulances services were called to the scene.

The Sheriff's Office identified the victims late Tuesday as Melvin Hershberger, 42; Sarah Miller, 47; Melvin Hostetler, 40; Anna Mary Byler, 60; and Elizabeth Mast, 46.

New York has seen a boomlet in new Amish colonies recently, driven by affordable rural farmland and proximity to traditional population centers. A study by researchers at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania found the Amish have established 10 new settlements in New York since the start of 2010. Total population has grown by more than a third in the past two years, to 13,000.

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