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 the crash that killed a man described as a mentor to the former "Saturday Night Live" and "30 Rock" cast member as the group traveled home from a standup comedy show in Delaware, officials said.
James McNair, 62, of Peekskill, New York, who performed as Jimmy Mack, died after the 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.
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.
Morgan remained in the intensive care unit at the hospital Saturday night and spokesman Lewis Kay said that his family was with him and he was "receiving excellent care."
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.
Middlesex County prosecutors said 35-year-old Kevin Roper, of Jonesboro, Georgia, 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.
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.
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New Jersey State Police at the scene of a multi-vehicle accident on the northbound lane of the New Jersey Turnpike on June 7, 2014.
Walmart President Bill Simon said in a statement a Walmart truck was involved in the accident and that the company "will take full responsibility" if authorities determine that its 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 McNair 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."
Associated Press writers Bob Lentz and Josh Cornfield in Philadelphia, Bruce Shipkowski in Trenton and Julie Walker in New York contributed to this report.