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2 head-on crashes send 9 to hospitals

Crash site on Interstate 40

Five people were rushed to a hospital Friday, Dec. 20, 2013, after a head-on crash on Interstate 40 near mile marker 135. (Courtesy KOAT)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In a span of less than 48 hours, two major crashes on New Mexico interstates led to nine victims being rushed to area hospitals.

Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office deputies were still piecing together information from a head-on collision Friday afternoon on Interstate 40 near Route 66 Casino, in which five people were taken to the hospital.

An elderly woman was airlifted due to serious injuries according to BCSO spokesman Aaron Williamson.

One lane was closed on westbound I-40 Friday afternoon while the Laguna Police Department investigated the crash, Williamson said. The highway had been cleared by 4:30 p.m., and two damaged vehicles – one white, one silver – were removed from the scene on car carriers.

No other information was immediately available.

On Wednesday night, a suspected drunken driver on Interstate 25 near Santa Fe smashed head-on into a truck, injuring its three occupants and sending the driver to the hospital.

Joe Salazar, 52, of Santa Fe, remains hospitalized and has been charged with aggravated DWI, having an open container inside the vehicle and reckless driving. The three people in the truck suffered injuries that included concussions, broken ribs and sprains, but have all been released from a local hospital.

Santa Fe Police Chief Ray Rael said Friday the accident should put holiday revelers on notice about the dangers of driving drunk.

“We need to see this as our wake-up call,” Rael said. “The holiday season should be filled with happy memories and celebrations, not tragic losses due to inexcusable and irresponsible decisions made by drunk drivers.”

“It was a pretty horrific crash, a high-speed crash that was head-on,” said Santa Fe Emergency Manager Andrew Phelps.

Crash scene on Interstate 25

Firefighters check out the scene of wrong-way collision on Interstate 25 Wednesday night. The driver of the totaled Dodge Stratus has been charged with aggravated DWI. (Courtesy KOAT)

Leslie “Les” Martinez of Pecos was driving the pickup hit by Salazar, and he says he knows he and his two friends are lucky to be alive.

“With the reaction time I had I was able to maneuver the truck a few feet out of the way, and if I hadn’t been able to do that it would have been a head-on,” he said by telephone Friday.

He and his co-workers from his Custom Coachworks body shop, Dominic Garcia, 39, of Rowe and Dino Martinez, 32 of Pecos – no relation to Leslie – were on their way home from Albuquerque after picking up some auto parts.

“I was in the passing lane,” Martinez said. “My helpers and I were just kind of talking and laughing and listening to the radio. There was another car in the passing lane (ahead of him) also and they swerved suddenly into the slow lane and I thought ‘what’s this guy doing?'”

But then “in a fraction of a second there were headlights, I swerved my vehicle to the right and at that same instant he hit us … with the driver’s side of his door into the driver’s side of my truck,” he said.

“We flew over the car (Salazar’s Dodge Stratus). We were literally airborne after the accident. We landed on the driver’s side and it immediately went into a roll and landed (again) on the driver’s side first. I guess we rolled three times. Once we landed the air bags deployed all over the place and parts were flying all over,” he said. “Fortunately we were all belted in.”

Martinez said “it destroyed everything, it felt like an explosion … every police officer who was there was amazed we walked out, the truck looks like a bulldozer ran over it.”

When asked how he was feeling, he said, “Beat up, beat up and hurting. All I can do is thank God we survived.”

Martinez’s sister-in-law, Brenda Ortiz, of Rio Rancho, contacted KOB-TV in Albuquerque to say she had set up a fund for the men to help defray their medical costs and perhaps get a new truck. The public can contribute at any Wells Fargo branch to the Brenda Ortiz account with the account number of 6316796728.

“I’m self-employed,” Martinez said. “I am not working, and if I am not working there’s no income.” The same goes for his two injured employees.

The crash was the latest wrong-way wreck on a stretch of Interstate 25 near Santa Fe as seen at least eight such crashes resulting in serious injuries or deaths since 2006.

Investigators found an empty bottle of vodka in Salazar’s Dodge Stratus.

Just before the crash, a tip came in on the state Drunk Busters line saying someone “was driving erratically in the city” and “multiple (police) agencies were searching for the driver,” a city police department’s statement said.

“We really dodged a bullet here,” said Santa Fe police spokeswoman Celina Westervelt. She said so many similar accidents have had tragic consequences “and thank God it didn’t happen in this case.”