HOLTVILLE, Calif. – Authorities are still looking for answers Wednesday after at least 13 people were killed in a packed SUV when the vehicle collided with a semi-trailer near the U.S.-Mexico border on Tuesday.
A 1997 Ford Expedition with the seats removed had 25 people inside when the large rig slammed in the side at the intersection of State Route 115 and Norrish Road near Holtville, Calif., Said Omar Watson, chief of Highway Patrol Division.
The crash happened 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 wreck was at an intersection in mostly undeveloped farmland. California’s Imperial Valley, which supplies much of its lettuce, onions, broccoli, and winter vegetables to US supermarkets, is completing its winter harvest.
Many workers commute from Mexico daily during the harvest, bringing buses and SUVs from downtown Calexico to the fields just before dawn. However, United Farm Workers spokesman Marc Grossman said union workers learned that the people in the SUV were not farm workers.
The area has also long been an important route for illegal border crossings. Federal authorities said late Tuesday they are investigating possible links to people smuggling.
“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,” Watson said on Tuesday. “It’s a very sad situation.”
Latest news:At least 13 dead after a 25-year-old truck rammed into an SUV near the U.S.-Mexico border
Here’s what we now know:
What happened in the crash?
A preliminary report released Tuesday by highway patrols said the SUV, driven by a 28-year-old Mexican resident, “pulled into the intersection right in front of a Peterbilt truck.” Police said it was not clear why the SUV was entering the intersection, but the truck hit his left side and instantly killed its driver.
Watson said 12 people were killed at the scene and a 13th person later died in hospital.
Several people in the SUV were thrown from the vehicle while others managed to get out when police responded, Watson said. Some others had to be freed from the SUV.
Who was killed and injured in the crash?
The police did not publish the names of the victims of the crash. The age of SUV drivers is between 15 and 53 years. No children were killed in the crash, the police said.
The driver of the SUV 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 Mexicans.
Watson said the California Highway Patrol is working with the Mexican consulate to “determine who exactly was in the vehicle.” What “is important to me is to make sure that the families are notified and that we do a thorough investigation so we know what the cause of the collision was,” he added.
Surviving passengers had minor to severe injuries. At least one person has already been discharged from a local hospital, Watson said.
The truck driver Joe Beltran (68) from El Centro, California, was also rushed to hospital with “serious injuries,” according to the preliminary accident report.
Why were so many people in the SUV?
Watson said investigators were still looking for answers as to why there were more than two dozen people in the SUV.
Police didn’t immediately know where the Ford Expedition was coming from or where it was going, he said.
At the time of the accident, only the driver and passenger seats were in the vehicle, Watson said.
“I don’t know if they were cut out or removed, but they weren’t in the vehicle,” said Watson of the back seats in the SUV.
A statement from the US Immigration and Customs Service said special agents from the San Diego Homeland Security Investigation Division had “opened an investigation into people smuggling,” but did not provide further details.
Macario Mora, a customs and border protection spokesman in Yuma and El Centro, said Border Patrol was not tracking the vehicle at the time of the crash.
“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 1997 Ford Expedition can carry a maximum payload of 2,000 pounds. If there were 25 people inside, it would easily exceed the payload limit, put strain on the brakes and make it difficult to steer, said Frank Borris, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Investigation.
“You will have longer braking distances, delayed responses to steering inputs and possible overreactions to any type of high-speed lane change,” said Borris, who now runs a safety consultancy.
SUVs this age tend to be top heavy even if they don’t carry a lot of weight, Borris said. “With all that payload above the vehicle’s center of gravity, it becomes even more unstable,” he said.
How is the landscape?
Less than a mile from the site of the crash, an unmarked brick cemetery is a burial ground for migrants who died across the border from Mexico into the remote California desert.
The area became a major route for illegal border crossings in the late 1990s after increased enforcement in San Diego pushed migrants to more remote areas. Many crossed the All-American Canal, an aqueduct that runs along the border and gives the Colorado River water to farms through a vast network of canals.
In 2001, John Hunter founded the Water Station, a volunteer group that leaves jugs of water in giant plastic barrels for dehydrated migrants. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to stop death,” said Hunter, whose brother Duncan, as a congressman, was a strong advocate of building border walls.
Illegal crossings fell sharply in the mid-2000s, but the area remains a draw for migrants and was a priority for the wall construction under former President Donald Trump. The first wall project of his administration was in Calexico.
The area is also a major commuter route for thousands of farm workers legally crossing the border every day.
Such tragedies used to be extremely common for farm workers, said Grossman, spokesman for United Farm Workers. He recalled an accident in 1999 that killed 13 tomato pickers in west Fresno after a crash impaled many with their own tools.
In a 1974 crash, 19 lettuce pickers died outside of Blythe. Many, if not all, drowned when their bus crashed into an irrigation ditch. The seats, which weren’t attached to the ground, held them in place in the shallow water, Grossman said.
After the 1999 crash, the UFW and others signed a bill from then Senator Dean Flores that required similar protection for farm workers as students on school buses. Individual seat belts were also required so that tools were properly stored while driving and the vehicles were not overpacked.
The law applies to all vehicles that transport farm workers, be it a van or bus owned by a producer or farm worker, or whether it is operated by Raiteros, independent contractors that move farm workers from field to field.
Featuring: Kate Cimini, Emily LeCoz, Grace Hauck, Christal Hayes, USA TODAY; The Associated Press
Colin Atagi reported from Holtville for the Palm Desert Sun.