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Three die in fatal highway crash
fatal crash
Emergency personnel respond to the scene of a fatal crash between a car and a big-rig early Monday morning on Highway 99 at the Whitmore overpass in Ceres. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER / The Journal

A southbound passenger car packed with farm laborers on their way to work was hit by a big-rig from behind Monday morning, killing three men and sending the truck careening onto a freeway onramp below.

California Highway Patrol investigators are trying to determine why the white 2003 Cadillac CTS was either stopped or traveling slowly before the pre-dawn crash that destroyed the back of the car. All three fatal victims were sitting in the back seat with a fourth man who survived. The crash may have been attributed to a sudden flat tire.

According to the CHP, the 6:20 a.m. crash atop the Whitmore overpass in Ceres occurred when big-rig driver Varinder Badial, 43, of Yuba City, came upon the Cadillac in the slow lane and was unable to avoid ramming into the back of it. The 2006 Kenworth tractor was traveling at approximately 57 to 58 mph. The impact crumpled the back of the passenger compartment and sent the truck and trailer down the embankment and onto the southbound Whitmore Avenue onramp. Badial escaped injury.

Ceres firefighters from Station 1, a block away, had to cut the top off the car and two doors to extract the pinned-in victims.

“Basically the whole back half of the car was pretty much destroyed,” said Ceres Fire Captain Mike Lillie.

The dead men were identified as Jose Jaime Botello-Herrera, who was in his 20s, and Erasmo Tello Jaimes, who was in his early 50s. The name of the third victim, who was 20, was pending confirmation by coroner’s officials. Making identifications was complicated by confusing documents made available.

All three men lived at the same west Modesto address.

The fourth man in the backseat, Bryan Aranda, 18, of Modesto, survived with some head injuries. Two men riding in the front seat were taken to local hospitals for treatment of injuries. They were identified as driver Rogelio Reyes Leon, 53, who suffered major injuries; and Antonio Lopez, 26, who sustained less severe injuries.

Investigators don’t believe the truck driver was distracted nor was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

The crash caused major traffic delays for both lanes of travel until the scene was investigated and cleaned up.

The CHP had not interviewed the Cadillac driver as of Tuesday because of his severe injuries, said CHP Public Information Officer Eric Parson. The department is interested in knowing if the driver slowed because of a possible flat. He said the car had upgraded rims on it.