2 dead, 9 injured in crash that shut I-29 for five hours near St. Joseph

A loaded passenger van on its way to a meat-packing plant in St. Joseph slammed into the back of a tractor-trailer early Thursday on Interstate 29, killing the driver and his wife.

Authorities identified the victims as Phun Bik, 42, and Rose Mery R. Thlia, 36, of Kansas City, Kan.

The van was carrying Burmese refugees who worked in entry-level jobs at the Triumph Foods plant. The other eight occupants of the van were among the nine injured, many of them seriously, according to the Missouri Highway Patrol.

The fatal crash occurred just before 5 a.m. about two miles south of St. Joseph, after traffic had slowed because of an earlier accident.

The van initially struck a 2011 Lexus and then hit the rear of the tractor-trailer. Debris from the wreckage struck a 2013 Nissan Versa.

The driver of tractor-trailer, a 42-year-old man, was not injured, but the driver of the Lexus, a 32-year-old woman, suffered minor injuries. Two people in the Nissan were unharmed.

The accident shut down northbound I-29 near Faucett for about five hours. Only Bik wore a seat belt, according to the highway patrol.

The occupants of the van had moved to the United States from Burma some time ago, said Wendy Doyle, executive vice president for development of Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas. They lived in another city and then migrated to the Kansas City, Kan., area, where Catholic Charities helped them get settled. Burma, now known as Myanmar, is in southeast Asia, near Bangladesh and Thailand.

Doyle said several Burmese refugees have worked at the meat-packing plant.

Bik was described as a community leader and pastor. Doyle did not know whether the couple had children or how long they had lived in this area. It is likely they moved to the area to be with other family members who had relocated here earlier, she said.

They were part of a small but tight-knit Chin Lautu community, Doyle said.

“They know how to support one another through something like this,” she said.