GARDINER — Two people died Monday morning when a vehicle carrying four people veered off Route 126 and slammed into a beverage truck parked in front of the Oak Hill Cash Market in Sabbatus, Police Chief Sheila Wetherbee said.

The driver and one passenger died and two other passengers in the Chevrolet Equinox were hospitalized after the crash about 5:45 a.m., and the driver of the beverage truck was slightly injured, police said. Speed and driver distraction were believed to be contributing factors in the crash, police said.

Wetherbee said the people in the Equinox, a male driver and three female passengers, all members of the Somali community in Lewiston, were headed to work at the Common Wealth Poultry Co. in Gardiner when the accident occurred.

The driver, Wabah Sahal Salat, 60, and passenger Shariffa Shale Ali, 48, who was in the back seat on the passenger side, died at the scene.

The other passengers in the car, Sareya Abdi, 38, and Mwavita Echa Kiza, 48, were injured. They and Shane Cormier, 33, the driver of the beverage truck, were taken to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston.

Wetherbee said it appeared the Equinox’s battery exploded on impact and started a fire shortly after the crash.

“One of the owners of Oak Hill Cash immediately got a fire extinguisher,” Wetherbee said. “He ran out and he put the fire out and helped get the two people that were injured out of the vehicle. He’s definitely hero of the day.

“We thought at the time (there) was going to be the third fatality, but the (lieutenant) was just up at the hospital and it looks like they’re going to be fine,” Wetherbee said. She said both were expected to be released later Monday.

Cormier had been unloading cases of drinks from the side of the truck when it was struck with such force that the impact knocked him over.

“He had a head injury,” Wetherbee said. “It wasn’t serious. He’s already been released.”

Sabattus police confirmed that two people were killed and three were injured in an accident at the Oak Hill Cash Market on Route 126 in Sabattus. Chris Williams/Sun Journal

The Maine State Police Commercial Vehicle and Traffic Safety units assisted with the investigation and an accident reconstruction is being completed, police said.

Officials at Common Wealth Poultry in Gardiner sent workers home and told farmers who were waiting to drop off birds for processing that the plant would be closed for the rest of the day.

“We weren’t going to make our guys work after that,” Charlie Ripley, the plant manager, said as he stood in the nearly empty parking lot in the Libby Hill Business Park on Monday.

The company had posted a message on its Facebook page early Monday that three employees had died on their way to work. The message was updated later to say two employees had died.

“With a sad heart we inform you that two of our beautiful employees passed away this morning on their way to work. These are without a doubt the hardest words we’ve had to speak here at CWP,” the post read. “Our hearts are with the families of those who have passed. Everyone here is part of one family, and we are going to spend today remembering the amazing people we love and cherish. Please be safe out there everyone, life is a gift.”

Members of the local Somali community approach the accident scene Monday. The four people in the vehicle were Somali, according to Sabattus police. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

“All the people that we work with, they are basically like family,” Ripley said. “We work with these guys nonstop, and after a while they just become a part of you, like family. When something happened this morning and we figured it out, it was devastating.”

Ripley, who has worked at Common Wealth Poultry since it opened about five years ago, said most of the company’s employees are Somali, and many are family members.

“My noontime shift guy had called me,” Ripley said. “He was on his way to come here, but he turned around and went to the hospital.”

“I’ve known the crew (in the accident) for three of four years,” Ripley said. “They are just everyday people. They love to joke around and get the job done.”

Ripley said Salat had a key role in keeping things flowing at Common Wealth, and had worked there for three or four years.

“These guys come in and work every day, and they love what they do,” he said. “You walk in here on an average day and they are laughing and talking in their own language. We laugh and joke around all the time.”

Lt. Dan Davies of the Sabattus Police Department has asked anyone who was in the area and saw what happened to call him at (207) 375-6952.

The Sun Journal contributed to this report.

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