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Van rollover kills 9, hurts 2 from USU

TREMONTON — Seven Utah State University students and their instructor were killed when the van they were in rolled off the freeway after a tire blew Monday afternoon. An eighth student died overnight in the hospital, while two others remained in critical condition Tuesday.

The USU agriculture students were on I-84 just north of Tremonton and were heading back to school after attending a presentation on farming equipment.

Just before 4 p.m., the driver of the 1994 Dodge passenger van, Evan Parel Parker, lost control when the left rear tire blew out, causing the van to roll and ejecting all 11 occupants, said Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Brian Nelson. He estimated the van traveled about 300 yards from the interstate before coming to rest on the edge of a ravine roughly 50 feet deep.

"It appears the vehicle went off the righthand side of the road and rolled a minimum of four times," Nelson said.

It was the second-worst accident Nelson has seen. "The number of fatalities and the fact they're young adults, it's tough to see them all hurt," he said.

All of the students were underclassmen, mostly freshmen.

Killed were:

Parker, 45, Hooper.

Dusty Dean Fuhrman, 22, Tremonton.

Jonathan Dennis Jorgensen, 22, Hyrum.

Curt A. Madsen, 23, Payson.

Ryan Wayne McEntire, 22, West Point.

Justin W. Gunnell, 24, Providence.

Bradley G. Wilcox, 26, Salt Lake City.

Steven D. Bair, 24, Moses Lake, Wash.

Justin Huggins, 21, Bear River

The driver of a vehicle traveling behind the van called 911 just after the vehicle left the road, and the witnesses reported that the van had just passed them before the tire blew.

"We don't know exact speeds yet, but it was well over the posted speed limit," which was 75 mph, Nelson said. Helicopters were dispatched to the scene immediately. "We knew it was bad."

Six men were pronounced dead at the scene, which was littered with parts of the van. A seventh died at Bear River Hospital in Tremonton, said hospital administrator Eric Packer. An eighth person died at University Hospital in Salt Lake City, trooper Jeff Nigbur said. Huggins died overnight at McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden, hospital spokesman Terry Behunin said Tuesday.

Robert Petersen, 21, of Tremonton was in critical condition Tuesday at McKay-Dee Hospital. Jared Nelson, 22, of Provo was in critical condition at Ogden Regional Medical Center, said spokeswoman Pam Vogle.

Sgt. Nelson said none of the van's occupants was wearing a seat belt, and all of them were thrown from the vehicle.

"There's no question they wouldn't have been hurt in that van if they would have had seat belts on," Nelson said. "I have no doubt that there would have been more survivors."

The students had been celebrating agriculture week, but USU President Stan Albrecht said festivities would be greatly subdued or canceled.

"I'm not sure if anyone copes with a loss of this magnitude," said Albrecht, who will be personally visiting the victims' families.

Utah State University evaluated its policy on 15-passenger vans after six students were injured in April 2001 when their 15-passenger van crashed during a snowstorm in Wyoming.

Utah State now requires all drivers to certify with a four-hour class, and the driver of the van Monday had taken the class, said USU spokesman John DeVilbiss.

The van "was inspected in June, so we're pretty confident that this tire was safe," DeVilbiss said. "They are very careful about maintaining these vehicles. The 15-passenger vans are a special breed of vehicle, and that's why they require students or instructors who drive them . . . to go through this class."


Contributing: Kersten Swinyard, Deseret Morning News; Associated Press

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com