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At least 13 killed in crash of SUV carrying more than 2 dozen near U.S.-Mexico border

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A collision between a semitruck and an SUV carrying more than two dozen people near the U.S.-Mexico border Tuesday morning has left 13 dead and several others injured, officials said.

A collision between a big rig and an SUV carrying more than two dozen people near the U.S.-Mexico border Tuesday morning killed at least 13 and injured several others, authorities said.

About 6 a.m., the 2011 Peterbilt tractor-trailer was traveling north on Route 115 near El Centro when, for reasons that remained unclear, a Ford Expedition entered an intersection directly in front of the truck, according to a California Highway Patrol report. The truck plowed into the left side of the SUV.

The burgundy 1997 Ford, designed to hold no more than eight people, was carrying 25, said Arturo Platero, a spokesman for the CHP’s El Centro office. All but the driver’s and front passenger’s seats had been removed from the SUV.

Twelve people died at the scene, including the Expedition’s driver, whom the authorities identified only as a 28-year-old resident of Mexicali, Mexico. A 13th person died after being transferred to El Centro Regional Medical Center, Platero said. The truck driver, a 68-year-old resident of El Centro, suffered serious injuries and was taken to a hospital in Palm Springs, according to the CHP report.

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An almost equal number of men and women were killed in the crash, said Omar Watson, chief of the CHP’s Border Division.

A collision between a Truck and an SUV carrying more than two dozen people near the U.S.-Mexico border Tuesday morning.
A collision between a Truck and an SUV carrying more than two dozen people near the U.S.-Mexico border Tuesday morning has left 13 dead and several others injured on Tuesday, Mar. 02, 2021 in Holtville, CA.
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

El Centro Regional Medical Center authorities reported earlier Tuesday that the SUV was carrying 28 people and 14 died at the scene, but CHP officials revised those numbers.

The SUV’s occupants, who ranged in age from 15 to 53, were all either injured or killed, Watson said. Authorities were still working Tuesday afternoon to identify all of the deceased victims and notify their families, he said. At least 10 of the dead were Mexican nationals, according to Roberto Velasco Álvarez, who heads the North America Department for the Mexican Foreign Ministry.

Four people were airlifted by helicopter to the Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs. Two others hurt in the crash were in intensive care, including one in critical condition, said Todd Burke, a spokesman for the hospital.

Three people were transported to Pioneers Memorial Healthcare District in Brawley, about 20 miles away. One was treated for injuries that were not life-threatening, according to Karina Lopez, a hospital spokeswoman. The other two — a woman and teenage boy — were then airlifted to Scripps Mercy Hospital San Diego.

Six others are being treated at El Centro Regional, Platero said.

A collision between a big rig and an SUV carrying 25 people near the U.S.-Mexico border Tuesday morning killed at least 13.
A CHP officer looks inside a mangled SUV which was carrying 25 people when it collided with a semi-truck killing 13 on Highway 115 near the Mexican border on March 2, 2021 in Holtville, California. All the back seats had beens stripped form the vehicle. The passengers in the SUV ranged in age form 15-53.
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

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Watson described the crash scene as “chaotic.” Officers found people who had been ejected onto the pavement and others wandering around the site, he said. Some had been ejected, some were pulled from the wreckage, and some “walking wounded” got out on their own, he said. First responders had to cut the sole passenger seat out of the vehicle to reach some of the wounded.

Later in the afternoon, someone placed small, colorful crosses around the crash site. Inscriptions scrawled on two of them read “Justicia migrantes” and “No mas muerte.”

“It’s a very sad situation,” Watson said. “That vehicle is not meant for that many people. It’s unfortunate that number of people were put into that vehicle because there’s not enough safety restraints to safely keep those people within the vehicle.”

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A spokesperson for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said special agents from Homeland Security Investigations responded to the scene of the crash and had opened a human smuggling investigation.

Dr. Shavonne Borchardt at El Centro Regional Medical Center said injuries ranged from fractures to life-threatening head and chest injuries. The hospital is transferring patients to other treatment centers as soon as they are stable, she said.

“Our staff has done a tremendous job getting everything ready for these patients and being able to handle them and get them transferred out to the appropriate places as soon as possible, or if we can take care of them here, they’re being well taken care of as well,” Borchardt said.

The National Transportation Safety Board, in concert with CHP, is investigating the crash, with officials expected to arrive Wednesday.

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The 43 people who headed out on a motor coach earlier this week to play slot machines at a Salton Sea casino likely had no idea they were betting their lives on what some consider an inadequate patchwork of federal and state protections.

Fifteen first responders and five fire engines arrived at the scene just north of Holtville, said Deputy Fire Chief Sal Flores of the Imperial County Fire Department. They were joined by other agencies, including the El Centro Fire Department. Customs and Border Patrol agents also helped provide translation services, Watson said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) said she was “heartbroken” to learn of the fatal crash.

“My office is closely monitoring the situation as we learn more about this horrific crash,” Feinstein said in a statement. “My thanks to the Imperial County Fire Department and other first responders for their swift response and the various medical centers in the area that treated injured passengers.”

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Sen. Alex Padilla (D-California) offered his condolences on Twitter: “My office is closely monitoring the heartbreaking crash in Imperial County. ... Our prayers are with their families and with those still in the hospital.”

For decades, there have been concerns about the high death toll in crashes along the California-Mexico border. Many of the wrecks involve immigrants trying to cross into the U.S., with a significant number of crashes during chases by American authorities.

There is no evidence this collision involved a chase. Platero said, “There was not a pursuit.”

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A Los Angeles Times-ProPublica investigation in 2018 found that over a three-year period, U.S. Border Patrol agents engaged in more than 500 pursuits in border districts in California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Of those, one in three ended in a crash. In agricultural areas of California, such as Imperial County and the Central Valley, there also have been concerns about deaths involving farmworkers packed into vehicles.

A series of horrific crashes involving farmworkers in vans in the Central Valley sparked legislation in the early 2000s requiring vans and buses that transport nine or more workers to be equipped with passenger seat belts and receive annual safety certification from the California Highway Patrol. The laws also stepped up penalties and education programs for growers.

Macario Mora, a spokesman for Custom and Border Protection’s Yuma and El Centro sectors, said in a statement to The Times that the agency’s personnel weren’t chasing or following the SUV at the time of Tuesday’s crash but responded to the scene at the request of the Imperial County Sheriff’s Office.

“CBP personnel were not involved in the accident,” Mora said. Although some news outlets have published information suggesting the victims’ immigration status, Mora said that was speculation and that the agency did not have those details at this time.

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“We don’t use the term undocumented in the hospitals,” Edward, the El Centro Medical CEO, said. “To us, these folks that came to us are patients.”


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