Family, friends mourn deaths caused by suspected drunken driver

Texas Department of Public Safety troopers attend a candlelight vigil for the victims of Sunday night's two vehicle crash on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018, in Penitas. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

PEÑITAS — A grieving family was joined by dozens of Hidalgo County public safety personnel Monday night during a community vigil for an EMS medic who died Sunday while on duty after being struck by a suspected drunken driver.

Red and blue lights from police, constable and state trooper patrol units, as well as from fire engines, lit up the otherwise dark parking lot of the Peñitas Fire Department.

Felipe Huerta Jr., 32, died Sunday evening after another driver crashed head-on into his ambulance on E. Monte Cristo Road in Edinburg.

The passenger Huerta was transporting, 68-year-old Delia Cortines, was also killed, and his co-worker, 24-year-old EMS medic Andrea Rodriguez, was seriously injured. As of Monday night, Rodriguez remained hospitalized in critical condition.

Huerta, a Marine veteran who was twice deployed to Afghanistan and was awarded a Purple Heart, joined Hidalgo County EMS three-and-a-half years ago.

Hidalgo County EMS is a private ambulance service contracted by various cities throughout the county, including Peñitas, the city where Huerta was born.

“It’s sad that … you’re in harm’s way and you make it and come back home and something like this happens,” said Marcos Ochoa, Hidalgo County Precinct 3, Place 2 justice of the peace. A member of Huerta’s family, Ochoa briefly spoke at the vigil on behalf of them, thanking the public safety personnel and community members in attendance.

The driver who crashed into the ambulance is in police custody and is expected to be arraigned Tuesday on criminal charges, according to Edinburg police. Alcohol is believed to have played a factor, according to a law enforcement official not authorized to speak publicly about the case.

Attendees embrace during a candle light vigil for the victims of Sunday night’s two vehicle crash on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018, in Penitas. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

The driver, who has only been identified as a 34 year-old male, backed his 2011 Ford F-250 truck out of a Dollar General parking lot at a high speed, striking an incoming vehicle. His truck was subsequently pushed into oncoming traffic, hitting the ambulance head-on.

“Yesterday was one of the darkest days in our family,” said Hidalgo County EMS Chief Administrative Officer Kenneth Ponce, who described Huerta as “a beautiful person (who) was always in a positive mood.”

Huerta, Ponce said, “loved responding to calls and helping people.”

Monday’s vigil was organized by the Hidalgo County EMS paramedics stationed at the city’s fire department in honor of Huerta, Cortines and all public safety employees who put their lives on the line.