A woman whose van is alleged to have precipitated the Saturday traffic accident that killed one Columbia-Richland firefighter and critically injured another had a Mexican driver’s license but no other license, S.C. Highway Patrol officials said Monday.
“We are looking to see if she is here illegally,” patrol Col. Kenny Lancaster said. If that is found to be the case, he noted, she will be turned over to federal immigration authorities.
The woman, Neida Ortega, 34, has been charged with driving without a license and driving too fast for conditions, Lancaster said.
Funeral arrangements for 23-year-old Chance Hyatt Zobel of Irmo, who was killed in the incident, are set for Wednesday at Shandon Baptist Church in Columbia.
The new sanctuary at Shandon Baptist is among the state’s largest, holding about 3,000 people.
“We’re expecting a large crowd of firefighters — from all over the state, and outside the state,” said Columbia-Richland interim Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins.
Following the funeral, a procession that includes “dozens of fire trucks” will escort Zobel’s remains to Shady Grove United Methodist Church cemetery in Columbia, Jenkins said.
According to an initial patrol investigation, the van Ortega was driving allegedly rear-ended a Chevy Impala on the eastbound lane of Interstate 20 near Clemson Road Saturday afternoon.
The impact of the collision sent the Impala between two Columbia-Richland fire trucks parked on the inside eastbound lane, their emergency lights flashing.
The Impala, driven by an unidentified North Carolina woman, struck the two firefighters.
Zobel died at the hospital after being airlifted there.
Another firefighter, Larry Irvin, 30, was injured and remains at Palmetto Health Richland hospital.
Irvin is in critical condition but is “showing signs of recovery,” Jenkins said Monday.
No one in the other two vehicles — among them six passengers in the van Ortega was driving, including her husband and a 1-year-old — was injured.
Officials indicated that Ortega likely will face no further traffic-related charges, even though there was a death involved. To bring a charge such as reckless driving, troopers must show that the driver of the vehicle causing a deadly accident was driving recklessly, not just negligently, officials said.
Officials say they believe Ortega may not have been paying attention, but wasn’t speeding or driving in an overtly dangerous fashion.
The initial investigation was slowed somewhat because Ortega does not speak English.
“Her husband translated for her,” Lancaster said.
Ortega, who lives in Sumter, was released on bond Sunday from the county detention center, officials said.
The bond amount, and other details, were not available late Monday.
Zobel and Irvin were tending a roadside brush fire near the I-20 Clemson Road exit, about two miles from Engine Co. No. 4 on Spears Creek Church Road, where they were stationed.
Zobel had worked for the department for three years. It was his dream to be a firefighter, Jenkins said, and he had graduated from the fire academy in February. He was engaged to be married to Katie Shearouse.
Zobel’s death is the third since 1986 for the city and county department.
The patrol’s investigation into the accident is continuing. It is being conducted by an elite accident reconstruction team.
Reach John Monk at (803) 771-8344.