KIT CARSON Cellphone use was ruled out Friday as the reason a van driven by a Colorado sheriffs deputy slammed into a cattle trailer along a rural highway under repair, killing him and five foster and adopted children he and his wife had taken into their home.
Seven other children in the van were injured, and at least one was in critical condition Friday.
The 1999 Dodge Ram van driven by Cheyenne County Deputy Howard Mitchell, 57, crashed into the trailer that had stopped Thursday in a construction zone on U.S. 287 near Kit Carson, a town in eastern Colorado 40 miles from the Kansas border.
The crash happened about 20 minutes after sunrise, and weather conditions were clear with no wind gusts along the north-south highway heavily used by tractor-trailers.
Mitchell was taking the 12 children to school in the town of Eads, south of Kit Carson.
The patrol also ruled out alcohol or drugs as factors in the crash.
Of course he had 12 kids in the van, and there will probably be some distraction, but nothing we can prove, Ortiz said. We can only make our best educated guess as to why. The main factor is probably going to be speed.
The speed limit on the highway is 65 mph but was lower in the construction zone. A final report that would state how fast the van was traveling is not expected for weeks. Only 26 feet of skid marks were found at the accident site, Ortiz said.
The collision killed Austyn Atkinson, 11; Tony Mitchell, 10; Tayla Mitchell, 10; Andy Dawson, 13; and Jeremy Franks, 17.
Six children, ages 3, 13, 15, 16, 17 and 18, were being treated at Denver-area hospitals. A 14-year-old was treated for minor injuries and released from a local hospital.
The 14-year-old was the only one in the van wearing a seat belt, while the 3-year-old was properly restrained in a child seat, troopers said.
The driver of the tractor-trailer, Jared Kauffman, 26, of Cheyenne, Wyo., was treated at a hospital and released.
Howard Mitchell and his wife, Melody, operated a state-licensed group home for foster kids in Kit Carson, but their children attended school in Eads, another small farm town.
Friends were saddened and perplexed about the accident.
Hes a sheriffs deputy and hes an excellent driver, Gary Longwell, a cook at the Trading Post restaurant next to the group home operated by the Mitchells, said of Howard Mitchell. Longwell said Jeremy Franks and two of the injured children worked at the Trading Post.
Waitress Kendra Sell sold Andy Dawson a soda and exchanged a handful of pennies he had collected for $4 before he climbed into the van Thursday morning.
You cant make sense of it, she said.
In Eads, Smith and Bennett Smith described Andy as full of life, always with a smile on his face. Andy was a big University of Oklahoma fan who dreamed of going to school there.
Tony and Tayla Mitchell, Smith said, were full of energy, hugs and smiles. Both were fourth-graders who had been adopted by the Mitchells. Andy Dawson was being adopted, Smith said.
Austyn Atkinson liked middle school and played on the football, basketball, wrestling and track teams.
Jeremy Franks was a sophomore and a football player at Eads 60-student high school. Smith and Bennett recalled him as a bit ornery and someone with a smirk on his face who always tried to push the limits.
He wanted to kid with you a bit, but he always stayed where he needed to be, Smith said.
Last month, when a teammates mother died, Jeremy worked with teachers and staff to design a school card to express condolences. The project was embraced by students.
It warmed my heart that he would think of another student that he doesnt really know that well. But he knew that it was a hurtful time for the whole community and he wanted to do something about it, Bennett said.
It was a turning point for him when he felt like he was a part of our community and our school.