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13 killed in California SUV crash passed through hole in border fence

Thirteen people killed in one of deadliest border crashes on record were among 44 people who entered the United States through a hole in Southern California’s border fence with Mexico, 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. They are believed to have been part of a migrant smuggling operation.

The Suburban carried 19 people, and it caught fire after entering the United States. All escaped the vehicle and were taken into custody by border patrol agents.

The expedition, crowded with 25 people, continued and a semi-trailer struck it shortly after. Ten of the 13 killed were identified as Mexican citizens. The others in the SUV and the truck driver survived.

13 killed in California SUV crash passed through hole in border fence
A brown Ford expedition that had been crammed with more than two dozen people is seen after being involved in a fatal collision with a semi-trailer near Holtville, Calif. On Tuesday, March 2, 2021.

Bing Guan / Reuters

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.

It was made of steel bollards built before former President Donald Trump covered much of the border with taller barriers that sink deeper into the ground.

“Human smugglers have proven time and time again that they have little respect for human life,” Bovino said. “Those considering crossing the border illegally should think about the dangers that too often end in tragedies, tragedies that our border patrol officers and first responders are unfortunately very familiar with.”

Seats for the expedition had been removed except for the driver and front passenger, said Omar Watson, head of the California Highway Patrol’s border division.

The cause of Tuesday’s collision was not yet known, authorities said. The SUV is designed to hold eight people safely, but smugglers are notorious for getting people into vehicles in extremely dangerous conditions in order to maximize their profits.

The accident happened during the height of the harvest in the agricultural region that supplies much of the lettuce, onions, broccoli and winter vegetables to U.S. supermarkets. The community of Holtville where the crash happened is a traffic-free town with a gazebo in its large central plaza and calls itself the Carrot Capital of the World.

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.

Just one kilometer from the crash, there is a cemetery with rows of unmarked bricks that serves as a cemetery for migrants who died crossing the border.

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 in the region fell sharply in the mid-2000s, but the region 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.

When police arrived at the crash site, about 200 kilometers east of San Diego, some passengers were trying to get out of the crumpled SUV. Others wandered in neighboring fields. The front of the large platform was pushed into the left side of the SUV and two empty trailers were driven behind.

“It was a pretty chaotic scene,” Watson said.

The SUV’s passengers were between 15 and 53 years old and were a mix of men and women, officials said. The driver was from Mexicali, Mexico, just across the border, and was among those killed. The 68-year-old driver of the big rig, from the neighboring California community of El Centro, was hospitalized with moderate injuries.

The injuries to the passengers ranged from mild to severe and included fractures and head trauma. They were treated in several hospitals. One person was treated and released.

The crash happened around 6:15 a.m. under clear, sunny skies at an intersection just outside Holtville, about 11 miles north of the border. Authorities said the trailer truck was heading north on a freeway when the SUV pulled up in front of it from a road with a stop sign.

A California Highway Patrol report said the SUV entered an intersection directly in front of the large platform, which struck the left side of the SUV. The two vehicles came to rest on a shoulder of earth.

It is not known if the SUV ran a stop sign or if it stopped before entering the freeway. The speeds were not yet known.

The speed limit for semi-trailers on the freeway is 89 km / h (55 mph), according to California Highway Patrol Officer Jake Sanchez. The other road also has a speed limit of 55 mph.

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 type of high-speed lane change,” said Borris, who now runs a safety consulting firm.

SUVs of this age tended to be very heavy even when they weren’t 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.


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