Survivor recounts van crash on the way to Tulum, only two passengers made it out alive

My heart raced as I lifted my head just in time to see the van collide with the curb and start spinning out of control. The desperate cries of the passengers filled my ears. Their screams for help pierced the chaos but I was powerless.

  • 1 month ago
  • April 12, 2024
7 min read
First responders assisting moments after the crash. | Photo courtesy of Lucas Yamil Figallo First responders assisting moments after the crash. | Photo courtesy of Lucas Yamil Figallo
journalist’s notes
interview subject
Lucas Yamil Figallo, a 30-year-old model and fitness professional from Mar del Plata, Argentina, specializes in training and sports bodybuilding. On February 18, he was involved in a severe accident in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, where he was one of the two survivors out of seven passengers, with five fatalities and one person still in critical condition. Remarkably, Lucas emerged from the incident with minimal harm.
background information
The World Health Organization’s recent report highlights a critical global road safety issue: over 1.19 million people died in road accidents in 2021, averaging more than two fatalities per minute. Despite a slight 0.5% decrease from 2010, road traffic crashes remain the leading cause of death for children and young people aged 5-29 years. The report serves as a baseline for the UN Decade of Action 2021-2030 goal to halve road traffic deaths by 2030.

PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico — I always fantasized about exploring the Caribbean, and in December 2023, I landed in Mexico for my dream trip. Right from the start, every place I visited left me in awe, and each discovery felt more mesmerizing than the last.

During my months-long adventure, I met some people casually at a party and decided to take a trip with them in a van to Tulum. During that drive, on February 13, 2024, a sudden crash claimed the lives of everyone except me and one other survivor. The crash itself is a blur; only fragments of it remain in my memory.

Today, I am slowly learning to walk again, following a careful routine of rehabilitative exercises under medical supervision. The fractures are healing, but the process requires patience and time.

Read more stories from Mexico at Orato World Media.

A Caribbean dream turned nightmare, vehicle with seven passengers collides head-first into a van

On February 18, 2024, seven of us gathered on Tenth Avenue in Playa del Carmen and hopped into a van bound for Tulum, Mexico. During the drive, the weather took a sudden and unexpected turn. The rain poured down and the roads became slick with water. We made the call to turn around and head back toward Play del Carmen.

Sitting next to the driver in one of the two front seats, I was lost in my own world with my eyes glued to my cell phone. Now and I then, I looked up to catch a glimpse of the rain-soaked world outside and to clear the fog from my window with a quick swipe of my arm. It felt like any other day, or so I thought.

Suddenly, everything changed when the van swerved violently on the road. I heard the sound of screams filling the air like an echo of horror. My heart raced as I lifted my head just in time to see the van collide with the curb and start spinning out of control. The desperate cries of the passengers filled my ears. Their screams for help pierced the chaos but I was powerless. I had no idea we collided head-on with another tourist van.

In my memory, I see mere flashes of the crash, like fragments of something shattered. I think my first instinct was to check myself for injuries. Being a trainer with first aid knowledge, I quickly assessed my condition, unbuckling my seat belt and measuring my vital signs. Although everything seemed intact, I felt overcome with an immobilizing paralysis. A sharp pain radiated through my body, particularly in my back, signaling something was wrong. All I could do was take shallow breaths, fearful about the extent of my injuries.

Nearly the only part of the van that remained intact was where he sat

Holding my phone still, and somewhat conscious, I called a friend living in Playa del Carmen. Struggling to press the buttons, I accidentally initiated a video call. She picked up, puzzled by my appearance. “I had an accident,” I managed to say. Her voice filled with concern, “Are you okay?” She was at a loss for words as I tried to assure her that help was on the way and attempted to explain the situation, but my thoughts were a jumbled mess.

Time seemed to warp at that point, and I felt trapped in a horror film. My mind raced uncontrollably, unable to focus on any single thought. I fell into a state of shock. My mind mixed up the images, sounds, and physical sensations of the crash, along with random, unrelated flashes of things. I found myself revisiting the train, the journey, and the collision. Then, it would all loop back again.

Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed movement through my window. The firefighters pounded on the glass and yelled, trying to get my attention. The sound of sirens and flashes of red and blue lights suddenly overwhelmed me. My door had jammed shut, leaving the firefighters no choice but to shatter the glass and then use a specialized machine to pry it open and pull me out.

As they rescued me, I noticed a large crowd gathered around the scene. They were recording and taking photos, and I couldn’t make sense of their actions. It felt surreal. When I caught a glimpse of the van, the reality of the situation hit me hard.

Man survives with six broken ribs and three fractured vertebrae

As I looked back at the scene when they pulled me out, I realized that nearly the only part of the van intact was where I had been sitting. The rest looked like a mess of destruction. The sight of it shocked me and again, my heart started racing. The emergency responders wasted no time. They quickly immobilized me, loaded me into the ambulance, and rushed me to the hospital. 

Once at the emergency room, they refused to treat me until I sorted out the payment issue. My insurance refused to cover the costs, insisting it was the other insurance company’s responsibility. I tried to explain my condition the best I could but couldn’t wait for the insurance company to act on my behalf. I had some money set aside for emergencies so I simply used it. Otherwise, I shudder to think what could have happened.

A snapshot of Lucas in recovery and medical care. | Photo courtesy of Lucas Yamil Figallo

Once examined by the doctors, the diagnosis proved grim: six broken ribs and three fractured vertebrae. It seemed clear that I faced a long road to recovery. They stabilized my condition and then the doctors came in to talk. Standing there, they broke the news to me. Vanesa Paola Silvia Díaz, Ezequiel Hernán Sibella, Gerónimo Amengual, and Nahuel Alejandro López, along with the Mexican driver Freddy Omar Quijano Carrillo, all died on impact. Five of the seven of us in the van perished. The weight of that information felt crushing.

Micaela Papiermeister, a 24-year-old, was the only other survivor from my van. The doctors stabilized Micaela, who was in serious condition when she arrived, but then her health took a turn for the worse when she went into cardiac arrest. She continues to fight for her life. I stay in contact with her relatives and feel heartened to hear of her gradual improvements.

Crash recovery stretches out: “I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for still being here, alive and relatively unscathed”

With time, my condition continues to improve. The outpouring of support from loved ones and the messages of encouragement on social media uplift me. Still, during my time in the hospital, I have faced episodes of intense anguish. This brush with death cast a long shadow over me.

Somewhere along the line, I decided to fight, wrapping myself in a mental armor to block out the worst of the pain and fear. At times, I feel overwhelmed with gratitude for still being alive and relatively unscathed. Recovery stretches out before me, and I feel resolved to get through it. Simultaneously, I remain locked in a legal hassle with my travel insurance, striving to ensure they take care of the hospital expenses.

I can walk cautiously now, though I have to avoid any strenuous exertion. Under the watchful eye of medical professionals, I undergo rehabilitation. The fractures to my vertebrae demand patience, as they can only heal with time.

When I gaze at one particular photo from the crash that became immortalized in the media, I feel haunted. It shows me seated inside the truck, just moments after the accident. Firefighters have not yet gotten to me, and I am motionless, clutching my phone. We I see that surreal image, It leaves me speechless and I lose my breath. An overwhelming realization hits me every time: I survived something absolutely horrible.

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