SUV in crash entered via border fence hole

- Ryan W. Miller and Grace Hauck Contributi­ng: Rafael Carranza, Kate Cimini, Emily LeCoz, Christal Hayes, USA TODAY; The Associated Press; Colin Atagi, Palm Desert Sun

Thirteen people who died after a semitruck slammed into their packed SUV near the U.S.-Mexico border were among 44 who entered the United States through a 10-foot hole cut into Southern California’s border fence, Customs and Border Protection said Wednesday.

“All are suspected to have entered the U.S. illegally,” the agency said in a statement. “Border Patrol is investigat­ing the smuggling events.”

Two cars were seen on surveillan­ce video leaving the area of the fence hole around 6 a.m. PT Tuesday, according to the agency.

One vehicle, a Chevrolet Suburban, carried 19 people and caught fire after entering the U.S. and traveling 30 miles to the intersecti­on of Interstate 8 and State Route 115, the agency said. All passengers were able to get out of the vehicle and were taken into custody by Border Patrol agents. The cause of the fire was not immediatel­y clear.

The other vehicle, a 1997 Ford Expedition with seats removed, was transporti­ng 25 people when a big rig hit the SUV’s side at the intersecti­on of SR 115 and Norrish Road near Holtville, California, said Omar Watson, Highway Patrol Division chief.

The crash occurred about 10 miles north of the border. A Mexican government official said at least 10 of the victims who died were Mexican nationals.

“At no point” did Border Patrol “attempt to stop or pursue either vehicle,” the agency said. The opening in the fence was about 30 miles east of the crash in the Imperial Valley, a major farming region. The area has long been a significan­t route for illegal border crossings.

“We pray for the accident victims and their families during this difficult time,” Gregory Bovino, the Border Patrol’s El Centro sector chief, said in a statement. “Human smugglers have proven time and again they have little regard for human life. Those who may be contemplat­ing crossing the border illegally should pause to think of the dangers that all too often end in tragedy tragedies our Border Patrol Agents and first responders are unfortunat­ely very familiar with.”

Here’s what we know:

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 died at the scene and a 13th person died in the hospital. Several people were flung from the SUV; others managed to get out by the time police responded, he said. A few had to be freed.

“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,” he said Tuesday. “It’s a very sad situation.”

Who was killed and injured?

Police have not released the names of the victims. The ages of those in the SUV range from 15 to 53. No children were killed, 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.

The Mexican Consulate in Calexico said Wednesday it had begun the process of notifying the families of the Mexican nationals killed, but it shared few new details about the incident.

“We know that there are families in the United States, as well as in several states in Mexico. The consulate has reached out to six families of the deceased individual­s,” said Mario Beltran Mainero, the consulate press officer. “We’re working to reach all of them.”

The consulate declined to say whether the 10 Mexican nationals killed, and the others who were injured, were part of a smuggling operation, deferring to U.S. officials.

Beltran Mainero said at least one of the six families they located is in San Diego; the remaining families are in Mexico. Four Mexican nationals who sustained minor injuries were released from the hospital in El Centro, California, on Tuesday and were not in the custody of U.S. immigratio­n or border officials, he said.

The truck driver, Joe Beltran, 68, of El Centro, also was taken to the hospital with “major injuries,” the preliminar­y crash report said.

Why were so many people in the SUV?

U.S. Immigratio­n and Customs Enforcemen­t said in a statement that special agents from its Homeland Security Investigat­ions unit in San Diego “have initiated a human smuggling investigat­ion” but offered no further details.

A 1997 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.”

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.

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.

The area is also a large commuter stretch for thousands of farmworker­s who legally cross the border each day.

 ?? JAY CALDERON/USA TODAY NETWORK ?? Investigat­ors work the scene of a two-vehicle crash that killed at least 13 people on Highway 115 near Holtville, Calif., on Tuesday.
JAY CALDERON/USA TODAY NETWORK Investigat­ors work the scene of a two-vehicle crash that killed at least 13 people on Highway 115 near Holtville, Calif., on Tuesday.

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