Frances Quintanilla and mother Rebecca Quintanilla hold a photograph of Guadalupe Quintanilla (Frances’ father, Rebecca’s husband), a truck driver killed in a head-on collision caused by another commercial driver who’d been dispatched to the Eagle Ford in a truck with bald tires. Both drivers lost their lives in the accident after the driver of the other truck blew at least one tire, lost control and hit Quintanilla head-on. The resulting explosion could be seen from miles away. State records show that 25 to 30 percent of Texas trucks fall state inspections and must be side-lined for potentially life-threatening safety problems. Image credit: Mayra Beltran, Staff Photographer, The Houston Chronicle
Few commercial truckers did more to earn the name “knight of the road,” than Guadalupe Quintanilla. The 45-five year old driver for Trout Trucking spent countless hours of his own time maintaining his 18-wheeler, which he affectionately called “Red Rooster.” His daughter Frances often helped him. I spoke with her at her home in Harlingen.
“Every weekend he was greasing this or changing the oil or washing it or just little things that he knew, as a driver, that was necessary for his truck to function,” she says. “If he needed new tires and he couldn’t afford it, he’d tell the company, ‘Put it on your tab, take it out of my check little by little,’ so his truck always had brand new tires.”
If his truck wasn’t working properly, Quintanilla knew he’d be a danger not just to himself but to other drivers as well. His wife, Rebecca, says that was intolerable to him. “And he said, ‘But I promise you one thing. If I’m ever in an accident, and I’m going towards a family, I’d rather die myself,’” Mrs. Quintanilla remembers. “‘I will not hurt anybody. I can’t do that, so, if you find out that I died to prevent killing so many people, be proud of me.’”
On the evening of December 2, 2010, Quintanilla was driving near Hebbronville, an hour southeast of Laredo. Another tractor trailer, carrying 40 tons of oil-based mud, suffered a blowout and veered into the oncoming lane.
Black smoke from the explosion was visible 50 miles away on the U.S.-Mexico border. Quintanilla and the other driver both died at the scene.
Video ofTurn Around’s then CEO, Ernesto Gutierrez deposition. The attorney asking questions is Jorge Herrera.
The second driver, 28-year old Guadalupe Garcia of Turn Around Trucking, was driving a vehicle that state inspectors had recently cited for defective tires. Several other Turn Around drivers had been ticketed or pulled off the road earlier in the year, for violations ranging from inoperable turn signals to defective brakes.
In addition to not maintaining its vehicles, the company didn’t provide its drivers with the safety training mandated by federal law. Under questioning by attorney Jorge Herrera, Turn Around’s then CEO, Ernesto Gutierrez, admitted this during his deposition for a civil trial.
Herrera: “We’re going to sit here all day until you answer the question.”
Gutierrez: “Go ahead, man.”
Herrera: “You’re the one that said he had someplace to go, not me.”
Gutierrez: “I do.”
Herrera: “OK. Again, did Turn Around Trucking train its drivers — so I guess that’s a no?”
Gutierrez: “I guess.”
Herrera: “Is that a yes or no, sir?”
News 88.7 and the Houston Chronicle contacted Turn Around for comment for this story. The company has been sold since the trial. Its current owners insist Ernesto Gutierrez no longer has any connection with the firm.
Rogue trucking operations like Turn Around have become a lot more common in Texas since the boom in unconventional oil and gas production took off. For decades, Texas highway deaths fell as car companies built safer vehicles.
But according to the Texas Department of Transportation, fatal accidents involving commercial vehicles took off as the boom in fracking operations got under way. The number of fatal accidents rose more than 50 percent between 2009 and 2013, from 301 to 454.
Most of the crashes have taken place on roads threading through the Eagle Ford Shale of south Texas and the Permian Basin in the west of the state. But the oil boom is increasing traffic on Houston roads as well. And truckers aren’t the only ones dying as a result.
Houston Chronicle reporter Lise Olsen contributed to this report.