It’s a haunting image: a crowded van skids out of control, flips off a one-lane bridge and suddenly becomes an underwater death trap.

Much has changed, and much hasn’t, in remote corners of three nations since 14 migrant workers were killed in northern Maine in the worst road accident in state history a year ago Friday.

The most significant changes have occurred 2,500 miles away in Honduras and Guatemala, where the lives of the deceased men’s families have been turned upside-down. The adjustments in Maine have been more incremental.

Prior to the crash, the forestry workers would periodically send home whatever cash they’d managed to save. A few hundred dollars here and there allowed loved ones to buy stereos and TVs that were the envy of their destitute Central American villages.

Today, life insurance disbursements of between $1,000 and $1,500 arrive every month. Each of the families should eventually receive around $150,000, and there could be even more cash on the way.

For the accident’s one-year anniversary widows of the four Guatemalan victims will be joined by members of an American legal team that’s suing Daimler-Chrysler Corp. and Thrifty Car Rental.

The lawyers, who contend design defects caused the 15-passenger Dodge van to roll over, plan to videotape family interviews to begin documenting the damages they’ve suffered, said Emilio Diamantis, a West Palm Beach, Fla., paralegal who’s making the trip to Guatemala.

“The families that I met with last week in Honduras are for the most part having their adjusting difficulties,” Diamantis said Tuesday. “Obviously they are used to having their husbands away to some degree, but this time they’re not coming back.”

The crash’s sole survivor has not received any workers compensation, despite claims that neck and back injuries prevent him from working, said Diamantis, whose law firm represents victims’ families.

Edilberto Morales-Luis returned to his Guatemalan village near the Mexico border within days of the Sept. 12, 2002, accident and has not returned to the United States. He has said that he sustained a shoulder injury in the crash that prevents him from doing heavy work.

A doctor who examined Morales-Luis determined that his back was also injured in the accident, and he mentioned possible psychological effects, Diamantis said. Morales-Luis has described vivid nightmares.

“When you’re the only survivor, and 14 of your co-workers die in the same vehicle, you have some problems,” Diamantis said.

John Cusolito, spokesman for insurer Liberty Mutual, said it would be inappropriate for the company to comment on Morales-Luis’ medical condition.

In Maine’s North Woods, where the accident’s scars also linger, changes over the past year have been less abrupt.

For the first time, land owners and contractors, who employ hundreds of men for work so dangerous and grueling that it generally goes unfilled by Americans, have held safety training courses this year.

The classes, which include training in first aid, CPR, and brush-saw and driver safety, are scheduled to continue next year, said Patrick Hackley of the Forest Resources Association, which represents land owners.

“It’s not meant to be a Band-Aid approach. This is a program that’s going to keep going,” he said.

No regulatory reforms have been enacted, though a Maine bill to be considered next year by the Maine Legislature would force employers to provide, among other things, free housing for woods workers within 25 miles of work sites.

The only legislation proposed at the federal level concerns the safety of 15-passenger vans. The Senate may consider the provisions as part of a larger transportation safety bill this fall, according to a spokeswoman for Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, who’s backing the reforms.

The lawsuit against Daimler-Chrysler, which was filed in May and asks the auto manufacturer to recall or retrofit its vans, appears to be a long way from resolution.

Defendants are seeking to have the case moved out of state court in Pryor, Okla. and the parties have yet to exchange evidence, said Jeff Wigington, a lawyer representing the victims’ families.

Also unresolved are workers’ compensation claims against Liberty Mutual for lost wages and medical benefits, said John Sedgewick, a lawyer who represents Morales-Luis and the families of all the victims except the van’s driver. Lawyers from both sides met Wednesday in Portland to discuss the matter.

Friends and relatives of the 14 workers planned to place flowers at the remote crash site during a Friday memorial service. The 2 p.m. service was coordinated by Sherry Izaguirre, whose husband Carlos was killed in the crash.

AP-ES-09-11-03 1734EDT



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