SANTA FE, N.M. — The driver of a pickup hit by a wrong-way driver suspected of being drunk on Interstate 25 in Santa Fe on Wednesday night 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,” said Leslie “Les” Martinez of Pecos.
Martinez was initially identified by law enforcement as a woman but he doesn’t mind the mistake – he is just glad to be talking and walking.
Asked by a reporter on Friday how he was doing, he responded, “Beat up, beat up and hurting. All I can do is thank God we survived.”
He and his co-workers from his Custom Coachworks body shop were on their way home from Albuquerque where they were getting some car parts when a wrong-way car driven southbound by Joe Salazar of Santa Fe crashed into their 2011 Ford pickup on I-25 near St. Francis Drive, destroying both vehicles, police said.
Martinez said his truck actually went airborne after the collision and landed on its side and rolled three times. But all three people in the truck were wearing seat belts and the truck’s air bags deployed, helping save the occupants.
The wreck occurred shortly before 8 p.m. Police found an empty vodka bottle amid the wreckage of Salazar’s Dodge Stratus.
Salazar, 52, is still hospitalized from his injuries and, when released, he will be charged with aggravated DWI, reckless driving and having an open container inside the car, said police spokeswoman Celina Westervelt.
It’s expected that Salazar will be hospitalized from his injuries for another week, she said.
Martinez was nursing strains and cuts when he described the crash in a telephone interview on Friday. His co-workers, Dominic Garcia, 39, of Rowe and Dino Martinez, 32 of Pecos, no relation to Leslie, are also recovering at home.
The three were initially hospitalized in Santa Fe. Garcia has a concussion and two broken ribs, and Martinez was knocked unconscious in the crash, said Leslie Martinez.
“He (Salazar) had to be doing 75 (mph) plus; it was instantaneous and in no more than a fraction of second he was on top of us,” said Martinez. “My cruise control was set at 75 and he was flying. It was like an explosion. I didn’t even get a chance to put my foot on the brake.”
It all started as a pleasant drive home with friends but that changed in seconds.
“I was in the passing lane,” related Martinez. “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 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 the place,” he said.
“Fortunately we were all belted in and the passenger in the rear, Dino Martinez, he was knocked unconscious. That was it – we landed on all fours.”
Martinez said of the crash, “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.”
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. KOB shared the fund details with the Journal.
The public can contribute at any Wells Fargo branch, said a bank representative, to the Brenda Ortiz account.
“I’m self-employed,” said Martinez. “I am not working and if I am not working there’s no income.” That goes for his two injured employees.
The Stratus that Salazar is accused of driving was sold in September in Albuquerque, the former owner said on Friday. The prior owner said he forgot to remove the license plate from the car and that Salazar had promised to return it but never did. Salazar paid $1,200 cash for the Dodge and was extremely excited with the purchase, the former owner said.