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NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (AP) — Actor and comedian Tracy Morgan was critically injured Saturday after a tractor-trailer rammed into his chauffeured limousine bus, setting off a chain-reaction crash that left a fellow comedian dead and two others seriously hurt, authorities said.
A truck driver from Georgia was charged with death by auto in connection to the crash, prosecutors said. Middlesex County prosecutors said 35-year-old Kevin Roper, of Jonesboro, also faces four counts of assault by auto. His bail was set at $50,000, and he was expected to turn himself in later Saturday. It wasn’t immediately clear if he had an attorney.
Morgan, the former “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock” cast member, was returning from a standup comedy show in Delaware when his Mercedes limo bus carrying seven people overturned on the New Jersey Turnpike near Cranbury Township at about 1 a.m., state police Sgt. 1st Class Greg Williams said.
James McNair, 62, of Peekskill, New York, a passenger in the limo bus who performed as Jimmy Mack, died at the scene, Williams said. Morgan, 45, and Jeffrey Millea, 36, of Shelton, Connecticut, were flown from the accident scene to Robert Wood Johnson Hospital, where they were in critical condition, hospital spokesman Peter Haigney said.
A fourth passenger, comedian Ardie Fuqua Jr., was also in critical condition, while a fifth passenger, comic Harris Stanton, was treated and released, Haigney said. Two others in the limo were unhurt, including the driver.
Morgan remains in the intensive care unit at the hospital. “His family is now with him and he is receiving excellent care,” spokesman Lewis Kay said in a statement. “We don’t anticipate much of a change in his condition today but will provide a further update once more information becomes available.”
Williams said the tractor-trailer driver apparently failed to notice slow traffic ahead and swerved at the last minute in a vain attempt to avoid a crash. But it smashed into the back of the limo, prompting a chain-reaction crash with a second tractor-trailer, an SUV and two cars.
The National Transportation Safety Board said it was working with state police to look at any issues in the crash related to commercial trucking and limousine safety.
Walmart President Bill Simon issued a statement that said one of the firm’s trucks was involved in the accident. While noting that the crash remains under investigation, Simon said “Walmart will take full responsibility” if authorities determine that the company’s truck caused the accident.
“We’re praying for the family and friends of the passenger who lost his life in the terrible accident” the statement said. “Our hearts go out to everyone involved and we hope those who were injured get the care that they need and make a full recovery.”
Morgan’s limo was owned by Atlantic Transportation Services, which said it had one employee behind the wheel and a second in the front passenger seat.
“Although the investigation is still pending, we concur with the preliminary reports that the accident was caused by another vehicle traveling behind the Atlantic limo bus,” the Rehoboth Beach, Delaware-based company said. “We are grateful that our drivers did not sustain life-threatening injuries.”
Morgan performed comedy standup Friday night at Dover Downs Hotel & Casino. His scheduled appearance at the Fillmore Charlotte in North Carolina on Saturday night was canceled.
Fuqua had tweeted that he was opening for Morgan on Friday. On his Instagram page, Fuqua included a collage of photos from the Delaware show.
“This is what it looks like from the stage to see a standing ovation from 1500 people,” Fuqua wrote at around midnight Friday. “Then we traveled back to NYC in style in a luxury Mercedes Sprinter. Road life is a good life!”
McNair was a close friend and mentor to Morgan, Morgan’s ex-wife, Sabina Morgan, told the New York Daily News. “He was one of the first comedians that took Tracy under his wing,” she said. “They were very close.”
Royale Watkins, a Los Angeles-based comedian who said he had performed in New York clubs with Morgan and McNair, described him as having a big personality.
“There may be guys like Tracy who get the fame and notoriety, but you have people like Jimmy Mack who have kind of energized and fueled cats like Tracy and kept them going on the road,” Watkins said.
Morgan, a New York City native, joined “SNL” in 1996 and was on the sketch-comedy program for seven years before leaving to star in “The Tracy Morgan Show” in 2003. That show lasted just one season. In 2006, Morgan found a long-running role on NBC’s hit show “30 Rock,” which was created by “SNL” co-star Tina Fey. He received an Emmy nomination for best supporting actor for “30 Rock” in 2009.
Morgan grew up fatherless, one of five siblings, in a blighted section of Brooklyn, where he helped raise and support the family. He once called his gift for being funny “a defense mechanism” for his miserable circumstances. As a teen, he started doing comedy on the streets to supplement the family’s welfare income. His tough upbringing informed his humor.
In recent years, he has struggled with alcoholism and drunken driving arrests. He had a successful kidney transplant in late 2010. Morgan has three grown sons by a previous marriage and a daughter, Maven Sonae, born last July to his fiancee, Megan Wollover. His films include “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back,” ”The Longest Yard,” ”First Sunday,” ”Rio” and “Why Stop Now.”