The thirteen people who died when a packed SUV collided with a semi-trailer near the US-Mexico border on Tuesday were among 44 people who entered the United States through a hole in the southern border fence. California, the Border Patrol said Wednesday.
Gregory Bovino, the agency’s El Centro sector chief, told The Associated Press that surveillance footage showed a Ford Expedition and a Chevrolet Suburban en route early Tuesday..
The Suburban carried 19 people and caught fire after entering the United States, according to the Associated Press. All escaped from the vehicle and were taken into custody by border patrol officers.
The 1997 Ford Expedition, with seats removed, had 25 people inside when a A large platform slammed into its side at the intersection of State Route 115 and Norrish Road near Holtville, Calif., Said Omar Watson, chief of the highway patrol division.
The crash happened about 10 miles north of the border, and a Mexican government official said at least 10 of the deceased victims were Mexican nationals.
Border patrol said its officers were not chasing the vehicle before the crash. The opening of the fence was about 30 miles east of the crash in the heart of California’s Imperial Valley, a major agricultural region.
The region has long been an important route for illegal border crossings. Federal authorities said Tuesday evening they were investigating possible links to human trafficking.
“It would be premature for me to speculate or discuss the cause of this collision. What we have to keep in mind is that 13 people died in this crash,” Watson said on Tuesday. “It is a very sad situation.”
Recent news:At least 13 dead after truck crashed into SUV carrying 25 near US-Mexico border
Here’s what we know now:
What happened during the accident?
A preliminary report released Tuesday by Highway Patrol said the SUV, driven by a 28-year-old Mexican, “entered the intersection directly in front of” a Peterbilt truck. Police said it was unclear why the SUV entered the intersection, but the truck struck its left side, immediately killing the driver of the SUV.
Watson said 12 people were killed at the scene and a 13th person later died in hospital.
Several people inside the SUV were thrown from the vehicle while others managed to exit as police responded, Watson said. A few more had to be freed from the SUV.
Who was killed and injured in the accident?
Police did not release the names of the crash victims. The ages of people in the SUV range from 15 to 53 years old. No children were killed in the crash, police said.
The driver of the SUV was from Mexicali, Mexico. Roberto Velasco, Director of North American Affairs, Department of Foreign Affairs of Mexico, confirmed that 10 of those killed were Mexican.
Watson said the California Highway Patrol was working with the Mexican Consulate to “determine who exactly was in the vehicle.”
What “is important to me is to make sure that families are informed and that we do a thorough investigation to find out what the cause of the collision was,” he said.
The surviving passengers sustained injuries ranging from minor to severe, officials said. At least one person has already been released from a hospital in the area, Watson said.
Truck driver Joe Beltran, 68, of El Centro, Calif., Was also taken to hospital with “serious injuries,” according to the preliminary report of the accident.
Why were there 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 were not immediately sure where the Ford Expedition came from or where it was going, he said.
Only the driver’s and front passenger’s 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 weren’t in the vehicle,” Watson said of the SUV’s rear seats.
In a statement, the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement said special agents from its Homeland Security Investigation Unit in San Diego “launched an investigation into human trafficking” but did not given no further details.
Macario Mora, spokesperson for customs and border protection in Yuma and El Centro, said border patrol was not chasing 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 there were 25 people inside, it would easily exceed the payload limit, taxing the brakes and making it more difficult to steer the vehicle, said Frank Borris, former head of the Defect Investigation Bureau of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“You’re going to have extended stopping distances, delayed reactions to steering commands, and a potential overreaction to any kind of high-speed lane change,” said Borris, who now runs a safety consulting firm.
SUVs of this age tend to be very heavy even when they’re not carrying a lot of weight, Borris said. “With all this payload above the vehicle’s center of gravity, it’s going to make it even more unstable,” he said.
What does the area look like?
Just a mile from the crash site, a cemetery with unmarked bricks is a burial site for migrants who died crossing the border from Mexico to the California desert.
The area became a major route for illegal border crossings in the late 1990s after stronger law enforcement in San Diego pushed migrants to more remote areas. Many have crossed the All-American Canal, an aqueduct that runs along the border and releases water from the Colorado River to the farms through an extensive network of canals.
In 2001, John Hunter founded Water Station, a group of volunteers who leave jugs of water in giant plastic drums for dehydrated migrants. “I was trying to figure out how to stop the dead,” said Hunter, whose brother Duncan advocated strongly for building a border wall as a member of Congress.
Illegal crossings fell sharply in the mid-2000s, but the area remained a draw for migrants and was a priority for building walls under former President Donald Trump. His administration’s first wall project was in Calexico.
The region is also a great stretch of suburb for thousands of farm workers who legally cross the border every day.
California’s Imperial Valley, which supplies much of the lettuce, onions, broccoli and winter vegetables to U.S. supermarkets, is finishing its winter harvest. Many workers commute daily from Mexico during harvest, taking buses and SUVs to the fields of downtown Calexico just before dawn.
United Farm Workers spokesman Marc Grossman said unionized workers learned that the people in the SUV were not farm workers, although tragedies like these are sadly common among farm workers, Grossman said. He recalls an accident in 1999 that killed 13 tomato pickers in western Fresno County after an accident impaled many on their own tools.
In a 1974 accident, 19 lettuce pickers died outside of Blythe. Many, if not all, drowned when their bus crashed into an irrigation ditch. The seats, which were not secured to the ground, stuck them in the shallow water, Grossman said.
After the 1999 accident, UFW and others signed a bill from then-Senator Dean Flores that demanded similar protections for farm workers that students have on school buses. It also required individual seat belts, tools that were properly stowed while traveling, and vehicles that were not overpacked.
The law applies to any vehicle transporting agricultural workers, whether it is a van or bus owned by a producer or a farm labor contractor, or whether it is operated by raiteros, independent contractors who transport agricultural workers from one field to another.
Contributors: Kate Cimini, Emily LeCoz, Christal Hayes, USA TODAY; The Associated Press; Colin Atagi, Palm Desert Sun.