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Border Deaths of 4 Labeled Unparalleled

Times Staff Writer

The New Year’s weekend deaths of four members of a San Joaquin Valley family who apparently succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning while awaiting entry into the United States resulted from a freak accident that is apparently unprecedented along the U.S.-Mexico border, authorities said Tuesday.

The four were discovered unconscious shortly after midnight Monday in the back of a pickup truck, equipped with a camper shell, that had waited more than three hours to enter the United States via the crossing at Calexico, 100 miles east of San Diego. The camper’s windows were shut but there were rust holes in the pickup’s bed, said authorities, who theorized that the deadly gas--a byproduct of gasoline combustion--may have entered through the holes or via a malfunctioning exhaust system.

Heat Stroke More Common

While occasional illnesses have been attributed to carbon monoxide at border posts, where lines of idling vehicles are a frequent sight, authorities said they could remember no other fatalities. Heat stroke victims are more commonplace, but deaths at the border lines are rare, officials said.

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“We checked all around the border, and no one can ever recall this happening before,” said Edward Kelliher, assistant district director for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in San Diego.

“It’s a terrible tragedy, but it’s a fluke,” said Maryanne Noonan, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Customs Service in Los Angeles.

However, two children were found unconscious, suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning, in the back of another pickup at Calexico fewer than 90 minutes after the fatal accident, U.S. Customs officers reported. The two, Angelica Ortega, 11, and Armando Ortea, 12, of the Imperial County community of Niland, were revived in time.

Short of Inspectors

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The long delays at Calexico, San Ysidro and other crossings, officials said, were caused by the usual holiday weekend traffic crush now exacerbated by an influx of newly legalized amnesty recipients who were returning from visits to relatives south of the border.

The INS acknowledged that it was short two inspectors due to illness when the deaths occurred at Calexico, but Kelliher minimized the importances of the absences, contending that the delays would have been substantial even if the border station had been fully staffed.

“Maybe instead of a 3-hour wait, there would have been a 2-hour wait,” Kelliher said, noting that Calexico can only accommodate 8 lanes of traffic, most of which were open all of the time. “With carbon monoxide, you could be poisoned in 20 minutes.”

While carbon monoxide poisoning is strongly suspected in the deaths, authorities are scheduled to perform autopsies today, said Imperial County Sheriff’s Deputy Sharon Housouer.

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‘Unfortunate Accident’

Calexico police are treating the case as “an unfortunate accident,” said Sgt. Paul Bugarin.

The driver of the vehicle, Horacio Aguilar, 36, who was unhurt, was described as disconsolate after losing his wife, Micaela Iniguez Aguilar, 26, and 3 children--Horacio Aguilar, 6, Francisco Javier, 4, and Camilio, 3. The four, residents of the Fresno County town of Laton, were returning home after visiting relatives in Mexicali, officials said.


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