Two women were killed and 13 people were injured Thursday when a pickup truck full of suspected illegal immigrants overturned after running over a spike strip laid down by Border Patrol agents, officials said.
The bed of the 15-year-old truck was packed with people huddled under a tarp as it sped west on Interstate 8, pursued by a Border Patrol car, investigators said.
Agents said the truck's right front tire blew out when the vehicle ran over the spike strip. The truck smashed into a guardrail and overturned, sending bodies tumbling down the embankment, according to the California Highway Patrol.
The two women were pronounced dead at the scene, about 20 miles north of the U.S. border with Mexico and about 25 miles east of San Diego. Seven other victims were taken to local hospitals, where they were reported in critical condition. Six people suffered minor to moderate injuries. Among the injured was a child riding in the truck's cab, CHP officials said.
Critics say such pursuits by law enforcement officers should be curbed because they are unnecessarily dangerous.
Border Patrol officials said agents began pursuing the truck after a tip that it was carrying illegal immigrants. Agents picked the truck up near the Tecate border crossing as the vehicle headed north on a rural road, said Border Patrol spokesman Raleigh Leonard.
The driver refused to pull over, and Border Patrol officials laid a spike strip on the road to try to stop the truck, Leonard said.
He said the driver evaded the spike strip and attempted to run over the agent who placed it on the roadway. Then, a few minutes later, when agents put down another spike strip, he drove around that and tried to run over another agent, Leonard said.
A third spike strip was placed in the road where California 79 intersects Interstate 8. That strip punctured the tire, but the driver sped onto westbound Interstate 8. The crash followed moments later, at about 4 p.m.
Several of those in the back of the truck were thrown 20 to 30 feet down from Interstate 8 onto the roadway below, Leonard said.
Officials said the driver was in custody and would face charges of reckless endangerment.
Since the Border Patrol began cracking down on crossings near San Diego, more and more immigrants have attempted dangerous treks through the deserts of eastern San Diego County and then headed in to urban centers.
In recent years, roads in San Diego County have been the site of repeated crashes of so-called "load vans" packed with illegal immigrants.
In June, six people were killed and 16 injured when a load van carrying 33 people struck four oncoming cars on Interstate 8 about 50 miles east of San Diego. The van had been going west in the eastbound lanes, apparently trying to evade a Border Patrol checkpoint.
In 1996, eight illegal immigrants died and 19 were injured when their vehicle tumbled into a ditch on a rural road near Temecula while being trailed by a Border Patrol agent. Months later, two died and 19 were injured when a load van crashed into a Border Patrol van on Interstate 8.
Immigrants rights activists said the Border Patrol must share part of the blame because it engages in dangerous chases.
"I think often zeal overrides good sense to the point of recklessness," said Claudia Smith of California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.
"And the results are just disastrous.... We're not talking about aggravated felons. We're talking about people who come here desperate for work."
Responding to safety concerns about police chases in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Police Commission voted this week to prohibit officers from most vehicle pursuits: those prompted by traffic infractions such as speeding or running a stop sign.
Leonard said that Border Patrol agents thought the driver in Thursday's crash posed a threat to the community, especially after he twice tried to run over agents.
Officials said they could not confirm the identities of those involved in Thursday's accident or whether they were illegal immigrants.
Mario Cuevas of the Mexican consul's office in San Diego speculated that many in the truck may have been returning to the United States after spending the holidays in Mexico.
The consular office dispatched teams to area hospitals to meet with the injured and help them notify families in this country and Mexico.
"I am very sorry for these people who put themselves in the hands of smugglers," Cuevas said. "It is lamentable."
Times staff writer Tony Perry contributed to this story.