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Four-year-old, grandmother dead in wreck; SUV had 10 people inside

Mar 7, 2014 - By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer

An Idaho 4-year-old and her grandmother died Thursday afternoon in a collision involving two vehicles and 12 people near Togwotee Pass.

The incident took place at about 12:50 pm. Thursday when an eastbound 2006 GMC Yukon carrying 10 people lost control on the snow-packed highway and collided with a westbound tractor-trailer combination about two miles east of Wind River Lake.

The 4-year-old, identified as Aylin Ruiz of Mountain Home, Idaho, was ejected from the Yukon and pronounced dead at the scene along with her grandmother, Dolores Ruiz, 56, also of Mountain Home.

Fremont County Coroner Ed McAuslan said neither was wearing a seatbelt.

"The 4-year-old was outside the vehicle, so my conclusion is she was ejected," McAuslan said. "The grandmother was still inside the vehicle, but when we extricated her she did not have a seatbelt on."

Their cause of death will be trauma from the crash, he continued, and the two will not undergo autopsies.

"We have sufficient information based on the trauma observed to enlist their cause of death," McAuslan said.

All of the other occupants of the Yukon suffered injuries in the incident and were transported to various hospitals in the area according to McAuslan. He said some subjects went to Lander Regional Hospital or Riverton Memorial Hospital, while others were airlifted to Billings, Casper or Denver.

"They were scattered all over," McAuslan said.

He added that the two occupants of the tractor-trailer combination were uninjured.

Critical injuries

Details about the survivors were unavailable Friday morning, but McAuslan said it's possible that another person may die as a result of the accident.

"There is that potential," he said. "I don't have any definite information, this is just based on information I received at the crash site. Some of them look severe."

McAuslan was up at 3 a.m. Friday meeting with family members of the deceased, who drove to Fremont County during the night.

He said the Yukon contained children other than Aylin Ruiz, including some who were transported by ambulance and others who were airlifted from the area due to the severity of their injuries.

Dubois fire chief Mike Franchini said most of the people injured were "critical."

"There were a few walking wounded," he said.

His agency focused on extrication during the event, which may have involved up to three children based on Franchini's recollection. He said both vehicles involved sustained heavy damage.

The crash

McAuslan said the highway was snow-packed, and it was snowing at the time of the crash, with walls of snow rising on either side of the road. Investigators believe the SUV lost control and went into a sideways skid, hitting the front of the tractor-trailer combination with the side of the vehicle.

"The semi driver, in his attempt to avoid the crash, tried to drive into one of those snow walls, but he ... couldn't avoid the crash," McAuslan said. "He did everything in his power to avoid it."

WHP Lt. Klief Guenther said the Yukon was attempting to turn a corner "too fast." He said the driver lost control of the vehicle "due to weather conditions and road conditions."

"It appears the semi was traveling at a much slower rate of speed than the Yukon was at the time of the crash," Guenther said.

The WHP had not concluded its investigation as of Friday afternoon, but Guenther said it was clear that no one in the Yukon was wearing a seatbelt. He did not know the status of the survivors, but Franchini also complimented emergency responders for working together on the case.

"This was what we consider a multi-casualty incident. ... As wrecks go, it was pretty severe," he said. "That event was activated, and the incident commander was an EMS person. ... You couldn't ask for a better incident to have everything work smoothly."

Multiple responders

Officials arriving at the crash site could be heard on radios saying the ejected child could not immediately be found, but McAuslan said she had been located by the time he arrived. He commended area agencies for working together during the incident.

"With the number of people they were dealing with, this was basically a disaster-type situation," McAuslan said. "(It) was handled very well; everybody responded appropriately and did a good job."

He mentioned the Wyoming Highway Patrol, Fremont County Sheriff's Office, Dubois Search and Rescue, and Fremont County Emergency Medical Services in particular. The Wyoming Department of Transportation closed U.S. Highway 26 over Togwotee Pass while the scene was cleared, and area hospitals made sure they had space in their emergency rooms to accept the incoming patients.

The Fremont County Emergency Dispatch Center coordinated the emergency response.

"The dispatch center received multiple calls about the incident," Undersheriff Ryan Lee said Friday. "Several agencies were dispatched to the event, including ground ambulances from Fremont and Teton counties, as well as air ambulances from Riverton, Casper and Idaho."

Two fixed-wing aircraft and two helicopters were staged at the Dubois Municipal Airport to shuttle patients to waiting hospitals, Lee said, and the Dubois Volunteer Fire Department also responded to assist.

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