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Crash kills 13 farmworkers. Farmworker deaths part of landscape; Jim Wasserman, Fresno Bee 10 Aug.

I saw them at the morgue on a Wednesday morning in 1996, all those burned bodies on gurneys awaiting autopsies while smooth jazz played on the coroner's radio.

It was horrible. The news stories said they had been trapped in the van and screamed. Now instead of picking melons in Patterson they were in a county building on Fresno's Nielsen Avenue, far from their beautiful green hills of El Salvador.

It is part of the San Joaquin Valley's summer rhythm. It is sure as the warm sun rises and sets over this big Valley. It comes as natural as tornadoes to the plains of Texas and hurricanes bearing down on south Louisiana.

They come here to work and they die at sunrise.

It's horrible.

The single-class comparison I can think of today is mining coal. Perhaps only in rough towns of Appalachia, the Ukraine and Colombia are multiple deaths such a predictable price of billions in annual production.

They take it as part of their landscape.

And so do we.

Here, a farmworker commute is a whole separate and unequal reality, of blown stop signs, bad brakes, alcohol and crowded seats. And now on another Monday morning in summer, it's a produce truck making a U-turn at 5:10 a.m.

They worked all night sorting tomatoes and then they die.

In the files of this newspaper, farm-workers colleagues react for reporters again and again across the years. As part of the universal law in which the poor must depend mainly upon the poor during trouble, they scrape up money among themselves to buy wooden caskets.

At a rural market on the Valley's west side in the especially terrible summer of 1996, a 57-year-old farmworker says simply: "Every time something like this happens, we just wait to see who got killed, and worry and hope it was not someone we know."

It sounds like the Ukraine when a mine explosion kills 31.

But it is here.

Surely now, the authorities and media, the rural advocates will call for more citations and renewal of safety laws. People will point fingers at customary targets, from farmers to labor contractors to California Highway Patrol officers to the Legislature.

And this will be followed by a great spinning off of responsibility that never lands squarely on any set of shoulders.

People will say that something has to change.

But it never does.

This is not about vans full of fifth-graders from private Christian schools. This is just a fixed and fatalistic part of the San Joaquin Valley's social fabric - with no really good answers.

No one, from farmers to consumers to average tax payer, will pay for transportation to the fields. It is assumed as no one's responsibility. Even seat belts are not required for farmworkers. No other industry gets away with such a thing.

Soon now, as recent history shows, the CHP will stop farmworkers vans in a highly-publicized series of sweeps.

Reporters will reveal again that much farmworker transportation is grossly overcrowded and uncertified for safety.

They will note balding tires, unlicensed drivers, lack of insurance.

Then another van will crash. And another after that.

I remember those bodies at the county morgue. There was no breeze that day. The coroner could not tell yet who was whom among the dead. It was just another day, the tedium of another farmworker van crash. There was a sense in the autopsy room of where we are. This is the San Joaquin Valley.

And this is what happens when tomatoes are ripe.

Footnote: Law stipulates that no one on welfare can be forced to work in the fields. The number of permits for foreign legal farm workers does not meet the need. Some how a labor force is recruited. From Washington to the local city halls no one seems to notice. When many workers do not leave at the end of the season there is public reaction to there staying. Before colored TV Edward R. Morrow did a special on the "Harvest of Shame". Before that there was the novel, and later the movie, "The Grapes of Wrath". Like Jim said nothing has really changed.



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