HOLTVILLE, California – At least 13 people died after an SUV with dozens of passengers crashed into a semi-trailer near the U.S.-Mexico border on Tuesday.
Omar Watson, chief of the California Highway Patrol Division, said the crash resulted in a large rig with two trailers and a Ford expedition of 25 people. The large rig hit the side of the SUV at the intersection of State Route 115 and Norrish Road near Holtville, about 50 miles west of Arizona and 10 miles north of the border, before 6:15 a.m. PST.
Authorities announced late Tuesday that they were investigating whether it was people smuggling.
It was not immediately clear whether the SUV was carrying migrants who had crossed the border, taking farm workers to fields, or being used for some other purpose.
“Special agents from Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego have responded … and opened an investigation into people smuggling,” the agency said in a statement, adding that other details were not disclosed.
A preliminary report of the crash released late Tuesday by highway patrols said the SUV that was driven by a 28-year-old Mexican resident was “right at the intersection” of a Peterbilt truck owned by Joe Beltran 68) drove from El Centro, California
The truck hit the left side of the SUV, immediately killing its driver, who was not named by the police. According to the report, it is unclear why the driver of the SUV turned into the truck’s path at the intersection.
Beltran was taken to an area hospital with “serious injuries”, the report said.
“It would be premature for me to speculate or discuss what caused this collision. We have to consider that 13 people were killed in this crash,” said Watson. “It’s a very sad situation.”
Twelve people died on the scene, including the SUV driver, and one died in the hospital, Watson said. There were children in the SUV but none of them died, he said. The ages of those involved in the crash are between 15 and 53 years.
Ten of the victims were Mexicans confirmed Roberto Velasco, Director of North American Affairs in the Department of Foreign Relations in Mexico.
The older Ford Expedition SUV was only supposed to seat six people – which means nearly 20 additional passengers were unsafe inside at the time of the accident, he said.
“Obviously this vehicle is not intended for that many people. It is unfortunate that so many people have been put into this vehicle,” said Watson.
The driver of the SUV was from Mexicali, a city in northern Mexico that hugs the US border near the El Centro region of California, according to CHP representative Jake Sanchez.
Seven patients were taken to El Centro Regional Medical Center, where one person died, Judy Cruz, emergency room executive director, said on a Facebook live video Tuesday. The hospital called for air support to move several patients to other facilities, she said.
A couple of patients have been taken to Pioneers Memorial Hospital in Brawley, Calif., Cruz said. Several others have been flown to the trauma center at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, California, said hospital spokesman Todd Burke. Three were in intensive care.
In the late afternoon local time, a patient was discharged from one of the hospitals, Watson said.
“Patients are going through a difficult time, of course, as you can imagine,” said Dr. Adolphe Edward, General Manager of El Centro Regional Medical Center. “This is a serious accident. We’ll take care of her in the emergency room.”
The California Highway Patrol worked with the Mexican consulateto “determine who exactly was in the vehicle,” said Watson. He said what “is important to me is to make sure the families are notified and that we do a thorough investigation so we know what the cause of the collision was.”
He said investigators were still piecing together why more than two dozen people were pushed into the vehicle, where they came from and where they were going. While law enforcement was still investigating what led to the crash, the weather didn’t matter, Watson said.
Watson added that they found ID for some of the passengers in the vehicle but would not say if all of them are US citizens.
Watson said seats were missing from the SUV and the only ones left in the vehicle at the time of the accident were the driver and passenger seats.
“I don’t know if they were cut out or removed, but they weren’t in the vehicle,” said Watson of the rear seats in the SUV.
Several passengers were ejected from the SUV in the crash, while several injured were able to pull themselves out of the rubble, Watson said. Others were still trapped when law enforcement arrived and were freed with their help.
“It was a pretty chaotic scene,” said Watson, later adding, “Everyone in the vehicle was injured to some degree.”
The freeway is a busy road and was expected to be closed all day, Watson said.The wreck was at an intersection in mostly undeveloped farmland, and residents of neighboring communities ventured to the site on Tuesday afternoon.
California Senator Dianne Feinstein said she was “broken” after learning of the fatal crash on Tuesday afternoon.
“My thoughts go with the families of everyone involved” Feinstein announced on twitter. “My office is closely monitoring the situation as we learn more about this terrible crash. I thank the Imperial County Fire Department and other first responders for their quick response and the various medical centers in the area that have treated injured passengers.”
Senator Alex Padilla, D-Calif., Also offered condolences on Twitter.
“My office is closely monitoring the heartbreaking crash in Imperial County, California that killed 15 people and injured several others.” Said Padillaand added, “Our prayers are with their families and those who are still in the hospital.”
Macario Mora, a customs and border protection spokesman in Yuma and El Centro, said border police were helping other law enforcement agencies in the crash. He said the immigration status of those in the SUV is unknown and is being investigated.
The authorities are working with the Mexican consulate to identify the victims.
“There were an unusual number of people in an SUV, but we don’t know who they were,” said Mora, adding that they may have been farm workers.
A harvest is underway in the region where farm workers collect most of the winter lettuce and other leafy vegetables consumed in the United States.
Mora told USA TODAY that CBP was on site to help officers investigate the accident and that the agency was not involved in the aftermath of the crash. “This wasn’t a Border Patrol chase,” said Watson.
When authorities investigated the crash, 49-year-old Hugo Castro placed at least 20 crosses for the victims at the scene.
He said he didn’t know any of them or any previous collisions at the intersection. He put the crosses to raise awareness of immigration rights and reforms.
“I know they are people who deserve a better opportunity,” Castro said. “People shouldn’t die for trying to be with loved ones.”
Archive images from Google Maps show at least one cross at the same intersection. At least two other fatal accidents occurred in the same location University of California-Berkeley transport injury mapping system.
Featuring: Emily LeCoz and Janet Loehrke, USA TODAY; Associated Press
Colin Atagi reported from Holtville for the Palm Desert Sun. Grace Hauck reported TODAY from Chicago for the USA. Christal Hayes reported TODAY from Washington, DC for the USA.