Language Barriers Complicated Crash

BYLINE: WILL VASH and ALAN GOMEZ, Palm Beach Post Staff Writers
DATE: April 10, 2004
PUBLICATION: Palm Beach Post, The (FL)
MEMO: Ran all editions.
When Gerardo Zavala was released from a Treasure Coast hospital the morning after the area's worst multiple-fatality crash in recent history, he had a sling holding his left arm in place.

But after a couple days, he became worried because he could do things with his left arm - eat, drink, easily slide it into a shirt - that he couldn't do with his stiff, aching right arm.

He returned to the hospital to see what was wrong, and that's when he heard the "oops." They had sent him home with the sling on the wrong arm. He said somebody at the hospital spoke a little Spanish but the communication broke down somewhere. "They saw that I had a huge cut on my left arm," he said, "so maybe they assumed that was the arm with the broken bone inside. But it wasn't."

The April 1 van crash near Fort Pierce that killed eight Mexican grove workers exposed the Treasure Coast's limited number of Spanish speakers at several public agencies. The 19 Mexican workers traveling in the van, which flipped several times on Interstate 95, spoke only Spanish. Their rescuers spoke mainly English. A television reporter helped translate for the Florida Highway Patrol at the accident scene on the night of the crash, and hosts for La Gigante AM 1330, a Port St. Lucie-based Spanish-language radio station, have since helped the Treasure Coast Medical Examiner's Office identify the dead.

Law enforcement and emergency personnel weren't prepared for the language problems, said Greg Wyatt, general manager of the radio station, which set up a memorial fund for the crash victims. "I'm sure it was totally chaotic out there, but that still does not justify it. Where are the Spanish speakers?" Wyatt said of the accident scene. "If you know you're in trouble, call on the sheriff's office to help (with Spanish speakers). It just seems to me that nobody thought this through."

The night of the fatal crash, three men, teary-eyed, waited on the interstate behind yellow crime-scene tape for word of family and friends. After about two hours, WPEC-News 12 reporter Jana Eschbach approached them and learned they were eager for information.

Eschbach, who speaks Spanish, asked Florida Highway Patrol troopers and St. Lucie County sheriff's deputies for information to convey to the men, as she later reported during her television segment.

FHP Lt. Tim Frith, who does not speak Spanish, said he tried to help the family by giving them updates through Eschbach. He relayed changing information about the condition and whereabouts of the injured family member to Eschbach, who called the men on a cellphone several times, she reported.

Steve Hunsicker, executive news editor for WPEC, said Eschbach did the right thing by trying to help. "It is not the job of the reporter to provide a translation service, but if there is not someone there . . . I commend her for doing that," Hunsicker said.

Frith said the accident scene was one of the worst he has ever seen. Deputies' main concerns at the time were getting the injured to hospitals and taking statements, he said. "They were not witnesses to the accident," Frith said of the men who sought information. "What is most vital is capturing the evidence at hand. An accident scene like this, with so many people there, we just tried to do the best we could."

Frith said the FHP's Fort Pierce district has one fluent Spanish-speaking trooper, compared with 10 in the Lantana district, which includes Palm Beach County. FHP had one trooper who spoke Spanish at the scene, Frith said. "If we need to, we can take a trooper from another district to translate," he said. The FHP has since assigned a Spanish-speaking trooper to assist the case investigator with all follow-up interviews, Frith said.

St. Lucie County sheriff's deputies also were at the scene to help with traffic control. The department has 11 road deputies, 19 jail deputies and one victim's advocate who speak Spanish. None were at the accident scene.

Sheriff Ken Mascara said deputies were working on traffic issues but would have called out a translator if the FHP had asked. "There shouldn't have been a problem," Mascara said. But in the days that followed the crash, La Gigante employees had to go down to the medical examiner's office to help translate for family and friends of the victims, station manager Wyatt said.

A message left with the medical examiner's office Friday was not returned. "If there's anything that comes out of this, I hope this is a wake-up call to the emergency services, the medical examiner's office and everyone else," Wyatt said, "that the Hispanic population will continue to grow. These agencies have got to change."

Story courtesy of and copyrighted by The Palm Beach Post (c) 2004

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