DWI crash suspect not hurt, but five others dead

Steven Eldridge / photo: Yates Co. Sheriff

A Yates County man is accused of killing five Amish people in a horrific drunk driving crash, but he was left unharmed. Now police have released the names of his alleged victims.

On Tuesday afternoon, a van carrying 13 Amish and its driver was driving down Pre-emption Road in the Town of Benton when it was struck by a car which was attempting to pass a farm tractor. Police say the driver of that car, 42-year-old Steven Eldridge of Penn Yan, was drunk behind the wheel and driving recklessly when he hit the oncoming van, causing driver Lyn Oles of Greenwood to swerve and accidentally smash into the tractor.

Eldridge, the man accused of causing the crash, was not injured. He has been charged with five counts of criminally negligent homicide, driving while intoxicated, reckless driving, failure to keep right, and speed not reasonable. He is being held in jail on $125,000 cash bail or $250,000 bond. Do you think this is a fair bail for these charges? Should someone accused of crimes like this be allowed to post bail at all?

Wednesday, police released the names of those killed in the crash. 42-year-old Melvin Hershberger, 47-year-old Sarah Miller, 40-year-old Melvin Hostetler, 60-year-old Anna Mary Byler, and 46-year-old Elizabeth Mast were pronounced dead at the scene. Police say they had difficulty determining identification of the victims, because the Amish do not carry IDs.

In addition, nine other individuals were injured in the crash, including eight on the bus and the driver of the tractor, 44-year-old Tim Labarr. They were taken to area hospitals for treatment of various injuries, some termed ~extensive TM. One bus passenger was treated at the scene and released.

"It's just a horrific tragedy," Yates County Sheriff Ronald Spike said, adding that it strained the emergency medical services and fire departments.

"There was a lot of hard work at the scene," he said.

It took a long time to free the victims because "the van ended up entangled and underneath the large tractor with the spray equipment on it," Spike said.

The tractor was carrying a large spraying implement. At least four people were stuck in the wreckage before they were removed by emergency responders who used power cutting tools to free them. Four hours after the crash, responders were still removing pieces of the van from under the tractor and loading it on a flatbed truck.

"It's probably one of the worst accidents we've had in this county that I can remember," Spike said.

DWI has become a hot topic in Central New York recently. Earlier this year, a Salina man was labeled a 'persistent felon' and sentenced to up to 15 years in prison for a string of drunk driving convictions. Should state DWI laws be toughened in an attempt to cut back on DWI crashes like this?

Police say the van passengers are from the Jasper-Woodhull area near Route 36 and Highup Road in Steuben County.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.