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Investigators examine crash that killed Sunnyside couple, boy

RICHLAND — Investigators are giving relatives of a Sunnyside couple and an 8-year-old boy a few days to grieve before further questioning about what led up to Sunday's deadly rollover on Interstate 182.

Bertha and Joel Barajas were killed when their 2001 GMC Yukon rolled in the looping on-ramp to eastbound Interstate 82. Their nephew, Cristian Valdez, also died in the wreck, which went unnoticed in the dark for more than five hours.

The couple's three children -- two boys ages 2 and 10 and an 8-year-old girl -- all survived with minor to no injuries.

"Usually when it's this soon after the fact we kind of let things settle for a day or two just so the family has a little bit more time to grieve with what's going on and collect themselves," Washington State Patrol Lt. Roger Wilbur said Monday.

Since this is not a criminal investigation, he said there is nothing so critical right now that troopers can't be sensitive to the family's needs and give them time. Detectives want to talk with relatives and people who'd been with the Barajases earlier that night to get better time frames and "piece everything together."

Technical investigators collected evidence from the scene on Sunday, and will return later this week to take measurements.

"The bottom line is we've got three kids that are orphaned and another family that has lost another child. Two immediate impacts to two families directly, not to mention the extended family has been impacted by it as well," Wilbur said.

Joel Barajas, 32, reportedly took the wrong exit and received a call from a family member in another car just moments before the crash, notifying him that he needed to turn around and head westbound on I-82.

Troopers said alcohol and speed so far are believed to be factors. The Yukon went off the ramp and rolled several times.

This is the fifth fatal collision the state patrol has investigated in the Tri-City area since Sept. 24. Eight people were killed in those wrecks, which is not a good statistic, Wilbur said.

The names of the surviving children are not being released by the state patrol. An update on their conditions was not available late Monday, though the older boy and his sister still are believed hospitalized.

The girl was said to have a broken leg and was taken to a Spokane hospital for further treatment. The older boy was taken to Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland for a broken ankle. The toddler was not hurt.

Wilbur said the three children are alive today because they were restrained properly. Their parents were not wearing seat belts, and Valdez was strapped in but reportedly had moved the shoulder portion of his.

The adults were both thrown from the SUV. Valdez was partially ejected.

"You never can quite know whether or not if the seat belt would have saved their lives, but you certainly know what the odds are if you don't have it on," he said. If they'd been wearing seat belts, "it would have given them a lot better chance. ... Certainly it is a testament to people using their seat belts and using them properly."

Wilbur said it's too early to draw conclusions about how much alcohol played a role in the crash. Relatives did tell troopers that Joel Barajas had been drinking at a birthday party in Pasco before the family got on the road.

The state patrol will know more within a few weeks or the next month after getting results of toxicology tests.

"At this point we're investigating (the wreck as a DUI) because it sounds like it is," Wilbur said. "The saddest thing of the whole situation is it's a preventable crash. Itdidn't have to happen but for some bad choices."

"If it turns out that it was a DUI crash, three people lost their lives to another DUI," he added. "It's real sad and unfortunate any time we have a situation like this, but here was two families directly (related) with children, which makes it that much worse."

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