Officials: Heavy caseload led to misidentification of 2 women after deadly Ariz. traffic crash

Monday, July 26, 2010

Case overload blamed for AZ fatal crash ID mix-up

PHOENIX — A heavy caseload contributed to the misidentification of two young women following a fatal Arizona car crash, officials said Monday.

Abby Guerra, 19, was initially listed as having died at the scene of the July 18 wreck and her friend, Marlena Cantu, as the one who survived. But their families were shocked to learn Saturday it was Cantu, 21, who was killed, while Guerra was hospitalized in critical condition with a brain injury, broken back, collapsed lung and other injuries.

The Maricopa County medical examiner’s office said Monday that Guerra’s autopsy was scheduled for Friday — five days after the crash — because of its heavy caseload. The office added it thought Guerra was the only crash victim yet to be identified.

A dental comparison was completed Saturday and showed the victim wasn’t Guerra, the office said. Dental records for Cantu were then sought, and they confirmed the deceased woman was Cantu.

Meanwhile, the hospitalized woman wasn’t easily identified because she was badly injured and doctors were struggling to save her life, a hospital official said at a Monday news conference.

“The hospital does not conduct fingerprinting nor do dental records in the middle of a trauma situation, because the overwhelming emphasis is on saving the patient’s life,” said Suzanne Pfister, vice president of external affairs at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix.

Pfister said the hospital identified the patient as Cantu after asking family members about recognizable marks, scars or bone breaks. She declined to disclose what features were used in the identification, citing the Guerra family’s request for privacy.

Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman Sgt. Kevin Wood added officers and hospital staff spent about five hours trying to identify the patient.

Pfister said the hospital did not know there was a mix-up until the medical examiner discovered it.

Cantu and Guerra were among a group of five friends from Ironwood High School in Glendale, near Phoenix, who were returning from Disneyland when the sport utility vehicle they were in blew a tire. The driver lost control, and the SUV rolled several times, authorities said.

One of the five — 20-year-old Tyler Parker — was taken to St. Joseph’s, where he died the next day. A woman believed to be Cantu and another person suffered severe head trauma and were also taken to St. Joseph’s.

Guerra’s family spent the past week planning her funeral, and teammates from her soccer team at the University of Evansville in Indiana were preparing to travel to Phoenix to attend the services. On Saturday, they rushed to her bedside after learning of the mix-up.

Guerra, a nursing major, was scheduled to begin her sophomore year at the University of Evansville this fall.

Cantu’s father, Frank Cantu, said Monday he can’t believe his daughter is gone.

“It’s unbearable right now,” he said. “To lose her, it’s just losing a big part of my life.”

Cantu said both families found out about the mix-up Saturday afternoon.

“It’s so unfortunate for even the other family, to grieve all week long,” he said.

Cantu said he’s not blaming anyone for what happened yet, but he hopes something can be done to prevent the misidentification of victims in the future.

“We want to find a better solution,” he said. “We don’t want this to happen to anybody else.”

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