The thirteen people who died when a packed SUV collided with a semitruck near the U.S.-Mexico border Tuesday were among 44 people who entered the U.S. through a hole cut into Southern California’s border fence, Border Patrol said Wednesday.
Gregory Bovino, the agency’s El Centro sector chief, told the Associated Press that surveillance video showed a Ford Expedition and Chevrolet Suburban drive through the opening early Tuesday.
The Suburban carried 19 people, and it caught fire after entering the U.S., according to the Associated Press. All escaped the vehicle and were taken into custody by Border Patrol agents.
The 1997 Ford Expedition, with seats removed, had 25 people inside when a big rig slammed into its side at the intersection of State Route 115 and Norrish Road near Holtville, California, said Omar Watson, Highway Patrol Division chief.
The crash occurred about 10 miles north of the border, and a Mexican government official said at least 10 of the victims who died were Mexican nationals.
The Border Patrol said its agents were not pursuing the vehicle before the crash. The opening in the fence was about 30 miles east of the crash in the heart of California’s Imperial Valley, a major farming region.
The area has long been a major route for illegal border crossings. Federal authorities said late Tuesday they were investigating any possible links to human smuggling.
“It would be premature for me to speculate or discuss what caused this collision. What we have to keep in mind is that 13 people died in this crash,” Watson said Tuesday. “It’s a very sad situation.”
Breaking news:At least 13 dead after truck slams into SUV carrying 25 near US-Mexico border
Here’s what we know now:
What happened in the crash?
A preliminary report released Tuesday by the highway patrol said the SUV, driven by a 28-year-old resident of Mexico, “entered the intersection directly in front” of a Peterbilt truck. Police said it wasn’t clear why the SUV entered the intersection, but the truck struck its left side, immediately killing the SUV driver.
Watson said 12 people were killed at the scene and a 13th person later died in the hospital.
Several people inside the SUV were flung from the vehicle while others managed to get out by the time police responded, Watson said. A few others had to be freed from the SUV.
Who was killed and injured in the crash?
Police have not released the names of the victims of the crash. The ages of those in the SUV range from 15 to 53. No children were killed in the crash, police said.
The SUV’s driver was from Mexicali, Mexico. Roberto Velasco, director of North American affairs for Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department, confirmed that 10 of the people killed were Mexican.
Watson said the California Highway Patrol was working with the Mexican consulate to “determine who exactly was in the vehicle.”
What’s “important to me is to make sure the families are notified and that we do a thorough investigation so that we know what the cause of the collision was,” he said.
Surviving passengers had injuries ranging from minor to severe, officials said. At least one person was already released from an area hospital, Watson said.
The truck driver, Joe Beltran, 68, of El Centro, California, was also taken to the hospital with “major injuries,” the preliminary crash report said.
Why were so many people in the SUV?
Watson said investigators were still searching for answers as to why more than two dozen people were in the SUV.
Police did not immediately know where the Ford Expedition was coming from or where it was going, he said.
Only the driver and front passenger seats were in the vehicle at the time of the crash, Watson said.
“I don’t know if they were cut out or removed, but they were not in the vehicle,” Watson said of rear seats in the SUV.
In a statement, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said special agents from its Homeland Security Investigations unit in San Diego “have initiated a human smuggling investigation” but offered no further details.
Macario Mora, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection in Yuma and El Centro, said Border Patrol was not pursuing the vehicle at the time of the crash. “It was an unusual number of people in an SUV, but we don’t know who they were,” Mora said.
A 1997 Ford Expedition can carry a maximum payload of 2,000 pounds. If it had 25 people inside, that would easily exceed the payload limit, taxing the brakes and making it tougher to steer the vehicle, said Frank Borris, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Investigation.
“You’re going to have extended stopping distances, delayed reactions to steering inputs and potential over-reaction to any type of high-speed lane change,” said Borris, who now runs a safety consulting business.
SUVs of that age tend to be top-heavy even when not carrying a lot of weight, Borris said. “With all of that payload above the vehicle’s center of gravity, it’s going to make it even more unstable,” he said.
What is the area like?
Barely a mile from the site of the crash, a cemetery with unmarked bricks is a burial ground for migrants who died crossing the border from Mexico to remote California desert.
The area became a major route for illegal border crossings in the late 1990s after heightened enforcement in San Diego pushed migrants to more remote areas. Many crossed the All-American Canal, an aqueduct that runs along the border and unleashes Colorado River water to farms through a vast network of canals.
In 2001, John Hunter founded Water Station, a volunteer group that leaves jugs of water in giant plastic drums for dehydrated migrants. “I was trying to figure out how to stop the deaths,” said Hunter, whose brother Duncan strongly advocated for border wall construction as a congressman.
Illegal crossings fell sharply in the mid-2000s but the area has remained a draw for migrants and was a priority for wall construction under former President Donald Trump. His administration’s first wall project was in Calexico.
The area is also a large commuter stretch for thousands of farmworkers who legally cross the border each day.
California’s Imperial Valley, which provides much of the lettuce, onions, broccoli and winter vegetables to U.S. supermarkets, is wrapping up its winter harvest. Many workers commute daily from Mexico during the harvest, taking buses and SUVs to the fields from downtown Calexico just before dawn.
United Farm Workers’ spokesperson Marc Grossman said union workers had learned the people in the SUV were not farmworkers, though tragedies such as these used to be distressingly common for farmworkers, said Grossman. He recalled an accident in 1999 that killed 13 tomato pickers in west Fresno County after a crash impaled many on their own tools.
In a 1974 crash, 19 lettuce pickers died outside of Blythe. Many, if not all, of them drowned when their bus crashed into an irrigation ditch. The seats, which were not affixed to the floor, pinned them down in the shallow water, Grossman said.
After the 1999 crash, the UFW and others signed on to a bill by then-state Sen. Dean Flores, which required similar protections for farmworkers as students have in school buses. It also required individual seatbelts, properly stored tools while traveling and vehicles that aren’t overpacked.
The law applies to any vehicle transporting farmworkers, whether it be a van or bus owned by a grower or farm labor contractor, or whether it be operated by raiteros, independent contractors who ferry farmworkers around from field to field.
Contributing: Kate Cimini, Emily LeCoz, Christal Hayes, USA TODAY; The Associated Press; Colin Atagi, Palm Desert Sun.