Eight Farmworkers Killed in Florida Crash

The driver of the pickup that sideswiped their bus was charged with driving under the influence-manslaughter.

A bus is removed after it collied with a pickup in Ocala, Fla., May 14, 2024.
A bus is removed after it collied with a pickup in Ocala, Fla., May 14, 2024.
AP Photo/Alan Youngblood

OCALA, Fla. (AP) — Mexico's consulate in central Florida was working Wednesday to support a community of farmworkers after a highway collision killed eight Mexican citizens and injured 40 other people who were on their way to pick watermelons. A Florida man was denied bond on charges of driving under the influence-manslaughter after authorities said his pickup truck sideswiped their bus.

Alicia Bárcena, Mexico's foreign relations secretary, said via the social media platform X late Tuesday that all eight people killed were in the U.S. on H-2A farmworker visas. Florida farms use about 50,000 H-2A workers each year, more than any other state, according to the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Wednesday morning that 44 of the farmworkers on the bus were Mexican citizens, hired by a Mexican-American farmer to work on the watermelon farm under temporary or seasonal visas. He did not release any more information on the victims, out of consideration for their relatives, he said.

The Mexican consulate in Orlando was working to provide support at the AdventHealth Ocala hospital, where many of the injured were taken. The Florida Highway Patrol said names of the people who died would be released after relatives were notified.

Andres Sequera, a director of mission and ministry for AdventHealth hospitals, said chaplains were visiting the injured workers, and they "were in good spirits for what they have been through."

"We were able to provide support, presence, prayer when it was asked of us," Sequera told reporters.

The Florida Highway Patrol arrested the pickup truck's driver, Bryan Maclean Howard, 41, on eight counts of driving-under-the-influence-manslaughter. The agency did not release more details, such as what substance allegedly left Howard impaired.

During a court appearance Wednesday morning, Howard told the judge he worked as self-employed painter and drywall installer, had no dependents and had $700 in the bank and no other assets. Howard's head was bandaged and he wore a protective gown typically given to inmates on suicide watch. The judge denied bond, appointed him a public defender and set his next court appearance for next month.

State records show he had previous arrests, accused of driving with a suspended license, leaving the scene of an accident and marijuana possession. It wasn't clear who might comment on Howard's behalf. Several phone numbers at residences linked to him were non-working.

The accident happened at about 6:40 a.m. Tuesday, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Orlando as the workers were going to Cannon Farms in Dunnellon. Troopers say Howard was driving a 2001 Ford Ranger that crossed into the center line on State Road 40, a two-lane road that passes through horse farms. The vehicles sideswiped and the bus veered off the road, plowing through a fence, hitting a tree and rolling over.

"Thank you to all who have reached out and offered condolences, help and prayers" for the people hurt in the crash, Cannon Farms said in a post on its Facebook page that described the accident as happening at the Olvera Trucking Harvesting Corp., which contracted the workers to pick its watermelons.

Cannon Farms, a family-owned operation that sends the melons to grocery stores across the U.S. and Canada, also said it would stay closed through Wednesday.

No one answered the phone at Olvera Trucking after the crash. The company recently advertised for a temporary driver who would bus workers to watermelon fields and then operate harvesting equipment, at $14.77 an hour.

A Labor Department document shows Olvera also recently applied for 43 H-2A workers to harvest watermelons at Cannon Farms this month, again at a base rate of $14.77 an hour, with promises of housing and transportation to and from the fields.

The H-2A program allows U.S. employers or agents who meet certain regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals into the country to fill temporary agricultural jobs. Getting to and from the fields can be hazardous: Federal statistics show vehicle crashes were the leading cause of job-related deaths among farmworkers in 2022, the latest year available. They accounted for 81 of 171 fatalities.

It was not immediately not known if the bus had seat belts. The Labor Department announced new seat belt requirements for employer vehicles used for farmworkers on temporary visas, among other worker protections that take effect June 28. Florida law already requires seat belts for farmworker transport using smaller vehicles, weighing less than 10,000 pounds. The Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association has been opposed to the new federal seat belt requirement, calling it "impractical."

A GoFundMe campaign organized by the Farmworker Association of Florida to support accident victims and their families had raised about $20,000 of a $50,000 goal by Tuesday night. "Farmworkers tend to be forgotten, but it's important not to forget farmworkers, especially during such difficult times," the post said.

Two advocacy groups called for stricter laws and enforcement to protect farmworkers.

"It is too easy to dismiss this as just another accident," said Asia Clermont, Florida director for the League of United Latin American Citizens. "Florida must take every possible step to protect its essential workers, who are human beings and the backbone of the state's economy."

Ty Joplin of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers said transportation laws for farmworkers are often unenforced.

"While accidents will happen, protecting workers while transporting them with mandatory and enforceable safety provisions, like seat belts and safety inspections, can reduce injuries and deaths," he said.


Spencer reported from Fort Lauderdale.

More in Labor