A grisly crash killed two people, including a fire chief, and injured dozens of others Sunday in St. John the Baptist Parish when a party bus shuttling workers to Baton Rouge for post-flood rebuilding plowed into a fire engine that had stopped at the scene of an earlier wreck on Interstate 10.
The driver of the bus, Denis Yasmir Amaya Rodriguez, a Honduran national, was booked on two counts of negligent homicide, negligent injuring, reckless operation and driving without a license.
Amaya, 37, told the authorities he did not have permission to be living in the country, said Trooper Melissa Matey, a State Police spokeswoman.
The crash claimed the lives of Spencer Chauvin, 36, of Gramercy, a district chief with the St. John Fire Services, and 21-year-old Jermaine Starr, of Moss Point, Mississippi, who had been in another vehicle struck by the bus.
Two other firemen, Nicholas Saale and William Mack Beal, were injured in the crash and thrown, along with Chauvin, over the highway’s guardrail into a waterway below, authorities said.
Beal, 35, was treated and released from River Parishes Hospital, while Saale, 32, remained at University Medical Center in New Orleans, where he was airlifted after the crash. He was reported to be in critical but stable condition late Sunday.
The two dozen passengers on the bus, most of whom are foreign nationals, received minor to moderate injuries, Matey said.
Investigators were still working to determine who hired the workers, who had been traveling from New Orleans to the devastated Baton Rouge region. The workers appeared to be working for a construction company, Matey said.
Amaya had been living at an apartment complex in Metairie near Grace King High School and also made his living in construction, according to three of his neighbors. Court records show he had been pulled over by State Police on Aug. 5 on I-10 in Jefferson Parish and cited for driving without a license.
Federal authorities planned to interview Amaya in jail but could not immediately comment on his immigration status. “We’re aware of the incident and are looking into it,” said Bryan Cox, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The crash happened at 7:17 a.m. in the westbound lanes of Interstate 10, west of the Belle Terre Boulevard exit.
Authorities had been investigating a minor crash that happened about 40 minutes earlier when the driver of a Nissan Titan lost control and veered into the left guardrail of the roadway. The pickup came to a rest “across the right lane and right shoulder,” Matey said. That crash caused minor injuries to the driver and a passenger.
State Police responded to the scene, as did a St. John Fire Services crew, which blocked off the right lane in an effort to protect the first responders. The three firefighters had been standing near the right guardrail between the wrecked Titan and a State Police vehicle when the party bus approached “at a high rate of speed,” Matey said.
The bus, a 2002 Eldorado National, was out of control — “for reasons that remain under investigation,” Matey said — and struck the fire engine, which had been parked at an angle in the right lane at mile post 203.
The bus then hit the back of a Toyota Camry, pushing that vehicle into a Chevrolet Silverado and flatbed trailer. The bus then veered into the right lane, authorities said, and struck the three firemen, sending them over the guardrail and into the water about 30 to 40 feet below.
Troopers and other first responders used a ladder from the fire engine to rescue the men from the canal waters.
The district chief, Chauvin, was pronounced dead at River Parishes Hospital.
The driver of the Camry suffered serious injuries and was airlifted to Our Lady of the Lake Hospital in Baton Rouge. Two other passengers in the vehicle were taken to University Medical Center; one was in critical condition.
“This is a very sad day for all first responders in Louisiana,” Col. Mike Edmonson, the State Police superintendent, said in a statement.
Chauvin had been a paid firefighter since 2004 and a district chief since 2006. As a district chief, he was responsible for a 24-hour shift that protected LaPlace.
Longtime fireman Frank Fagot said Chauvin had been well liked in the department. "He was a great person," Fagot said.
St. John the Baptist Parish President Natalie Robottom described Chauvin as "one of the bravest and most dedicated firefighters" she knew.
"This type of loss will affect the entire department, and they will have our full support as they deal with the grief of losing a comrade," Robottom said in a statement. "It is heartbreaking, especially after this same group of individuals helped to guide St. John the Baptist Parish safely through Hurricane Isaac" in 2012 and a damaging tornado in February, among other emergencies.
Chauvin's death prompted an outpouring of grief on social media. Friends and colleagues described the father of two as a loving family man.
"Today, our community lost one of the bravest souls, a model citizen and one of its most dedicated servants," one colleague, Adam Tamplain, posted on Facebook. "In my 10 years in the department, I had the honor of serving alongside and under Spencer. ... Rest easy brother, we'll take it from here."
On Sunday afternoon, more than a half-dozen cars were parked outside Chauvin’s home in a Gramercy subdivision, where his family was receiving a steady stream of visitors.
"It’s been a hard morning," said Baileigh Rebowe, a St. John the Baptist Parish spokeswoman. "But in tough times, we do pull together."