What we know about the SUV crash near the U.S.-Mexico border that killed at least 13

A smashed SUV sits beside a tractor-trailer in Holtville, Calif.
A collision between a tractor-trailer hauling gravel and an SUV carrying more than two dozen people near the U.S.-Mexico border Tuesday morning left at least 13 dead.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Just as dawn was breaking Tuesday morning, a big rig hauling two trailers filled with gravel was lumbering north along Highway 115 in Imperial County. An SUV carrying more than two dozen people was traveling west on Norrish Road, approaching the intersection with the state road.

What happened next is unclear, but “for unknown reasons,” the burgundy SUV — a Ford Expedition designed to carry only seven or eight people — crossed into the path of the big rig, according to CHP Officer Jake Sanchez, a spokesman for the agency’s Border Division.

The collision near the U.S.-Mexico border left at least 13 dead and many questions.


Here is what we know:

How did the crash happen?

Imperial County Deputy Fire Chief Sal Flores said the Fire Department and the county’s Office of Emergency Services responded to a “mass fatality incident” at 6:16 a.m.

The SUV was headed west on Norrish Road at the intersection of state Highway 115.

“We’re not sure if the vehicle [SUV] ran the stop sign or if the vehicle stopped and entered unsafely,” said Arturo Platero, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol’s El Centro office. “We’re still unsure.”

Photos from the scene showed the Ford with the driver’s side wrapped around the front of the tractor trailer. The SUV’s windshield was shattered, and debris was scattered on the ground around the two vehicles.

Several of the passengers were ejected onto the roadway in the collision, CHP officials said.

California Highway Patrol officials say there were only two seats inside the SUV, which was carrying 25 people.

March 2, 2021

What do we know about the victims?

Platero and CHP Chief Omar Watson said there were 25 people inside the SUV, which is built for seven or eight passengers.

The names of those involved in the crash have not been released, but CHP officials said the driver of the SUV was from Mexicali. The big rig operator, who was taken to a hospital with injuries described by authorities as moderate, is 68.

Law enforcement personnel said 12 people died at the scene of the crash, which they described as “chaotic.” One other person died at the hospital.


Four people were airlifted by helicopter to the Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, including the big rig driver, according to CHP officials. Two passengers from the SUV are in intensive care, including one who is in critical condition, hospital spokesman Todd Burke said.

Three people were transported to Pioneers Memorial Hospital in Brawley, about 20 miles away, and six more were being being treated at El Centro Regional Medical Center.

Why were so many people in the SUV?

That remains unclear.

Authorities said there were more than two dozen people inside the Ford Expedition, including a 16-year-old boy.

“It’s a very sad situation,” Watson of the CHP 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.”

Was this the result of a border pursuit?

Authorities say no. 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 occurring during chases by American authorities.

But U.S. Border Patrol officials said the agency was not involved in a pursuit with the SUV.