Hit-and-Run Driver Caused Church Van Crash That Killed 4 People, Police Say

A 6-year-old child and an elderly couple died Monday after the driver of pickup truck fleeing the scene of another crash slammed into a church van Sunday evening in Hyattsville, Maryland.

The violent crash occurred near 5 p.m. Sunday after the driver of a pickup truck hit a car, left that crash scene, lost control and slammed into the side of the church van, police said Tuesday that the preliminary investigation shows.

Santiago Merche, 75, and Elba Linares, 73, of Northwest Washington, were killed in the crash on the 2600 block of Chillum Road, family members and Prince George's County police confirmed. They had eight children and 35 grandchildren.

Staily Gomez, 6, of Northwest Washington, also died, police said.

A woman who was pregnant was injured; doctors were unable to save her baby. The driver of the pickup also died. Police identified him late Tuesday as Medardo Flores, 30, or Chillum, Maryland. 

A total of 14 people were hurt. The victims range in age from 6 months old to in their 70s, police said.

Members of the church the victims attended, Iglesia Ministerio de Dios Unido, prayed and wept Monday night at the scene of the crash. Pastor Jose Santos Jimenez said the victims were devoted members of the close-knit community.

"Good kids and good mom and good father," Jimenez said. "People working. They only had time to go to church." 

Gomez, the child who was killed, attended Brightwood Education Campus in Northwest D.C., her father said. His wife and infant child also were hurt.

First responders called the crash scene "horrific." The flames leaped so high that emergency workers responding at first thought a house was on fire.

Fire department spokesman Mark Brady called the crash scene and the numbers of victims one of the worst in his 40-year career. Brady said firefighters were among those debriefed by counselors afterward because of the magnitude of the crash — "so many people, so many injuries and fatalities.''

The chain of events began when the driver of the pickup truck hit a car in the westbound lanes of Chillum Road, police said the investigation shows. He didn't stop and instead fled the scene, according to police. Moments later, he lost control of the truck, crossed into the opposite lane of traffic and slammed into the church van headed eastbound on Chillum Road. The truck then burst into flames -- trapping, injuring and killing passengers. 

Witnesses told News4 on Sunday that the truck burst into flames after the driver hit the car and then sped down the road on fire.

People who saw the blaze ran from their homes with fire extinguishers to try to help, but they could do little to put out the flames, witnesses said.

Police have not released the name of the pickup truck driver believed to have caused the crash. No one answered the door at his home.

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