An SUV packed with 25 people at the border. A horrible crash, an unthinkable toll

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.


By the time first responders arrived at the intersection near the U.S.-Mexico border, bodies lay on the highway where they had been flung by the force of the early morning collision. The wounded who were still able to walk after the violent crash wandered, dazed and in pain.

And what was left of the burgundy Ford Expedition — which was wrapped around the front of a white big rig — was still filled with passengers.

Normally, the SUV would hold seven or eight people. But this one had just two seats, one for the driver, one for a front passenger. And when it collided with the empty tractor-trailer Tuesday at 6:15 a.m., 23 other men and women were jammed into the back of the vehicle.


Very little is known about what happened shortly after sunrise at the intersection of State Highway 115 and Norrish Road in Imperial County.

The weather was clear. The highways were long and straight; the terrain, flat and empty farmland. One thing, though, was certain. Twelve people died at the scene. One more person died after being taken to a hospital. Everyone else involved in the crash was injured.

“It’s a very sad situation,” said California Highway Patrol Chief Omar Watson. “That vehicle is not meant for that many people. ... The Fire Department had to cut the right front seat out of the vehicle to extricate people.”

Authorities said they are still unsure what brought the SUV into the path of the truck and why so many people were inside of it.

March 2, 2021

Watson, who heads the agency’s border division, said the scene was “chaotic” when fire crews and law enforcement agents arrived about 10 minutes after the crash; it was not expected to be cleared until late evening because of the ongoing investigation. By late afternoon, the CHP was still working with the coroner’s office to identify passengers.

At least 10 of the dead were Mexican nationals, said Roberto Velasco Álvarez, who heads the North America Department for the Mexican foreign ministry.

“We continue in close collaboration with authorities with the aim of assisting the Mexican people killed and injured,” Velasco said on Twitter. “We offer our profound condolences and reaffirm our commitment to the families of the persons who lose their lives.”


The driver of the SUV was a 28-year-old from Mexicali who died in the crash. The 68-year-old driver of the big rig suffered moderate injuries, according to CHP officials, and was one of four people airlifted by helicopter to Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs; two others are in intensive care there, including one who is in critical condition, said hospital spokesman Todd Burke.

Other injured passengers were treated at El Centro Regional Medical Center, Pioneers Memorial Healthcare District in Brawley, about 20 miles away, Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego and UC San Diego Medical Center.

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.

Watson said the men and women in the Ford were all between 15 and 53 years old. There is little additional concrete information about them, where they had come from or where they were going.

During several news conferences Tuesday, Watson was asked whether the victims in the SUV were migrant workers being transported to or from a job or whether they were immigrants being brought into the country. Although Border Patrol had responded to the incident, he said, “this was not a Border Patrol pursuit.”


It is “too early in the investigation to say what they were doing or where they were coming from,” Watson said. “We are close to the border. People come back and forth on a daily basis for work. That’s not something we can necessarily rule out.”

Location of deadly collision in Imperial County.
(Los Angeles Times)

But an official from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement that “Special Agents from Homeland Security Investigations San Diego responded to the scene of today’s fatal crash in El Centro, California, and have initiated a human smuggling investigation. The investigation is ongoing and no further details are available at this time.”

Macario Mora, a spokesman for Customs 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 vehicle at the time of the accident, but had responded to the scene at the request of the Imperial County Sheriff’s Department.

“CBP personnel were not involved in the accident,” Mora said.

Authorities from various state and federal agencies are investigating the crash. In addition to ICE, the National Transportation Safety Board is partnering with CHP in an investigation. NTSB’s investigator-in-charge who is expected to arrive Wednesday, will later be joined by two other investigators.

The big rig was traveling north on 115, and the Ford was westbound on Norrish Road, Watson said, when the semi broadsided the smaller vehicle and pushed it to the shoulder. He did not say whether either vehicle was speeding.


“At this point, it is unknown whether or not the SUV stopped at the stop sign,” Watson said. “For reasons still under investigation, the Ford Expedition entered the intersection in front of the big rig.”

In a CHP collision report released late Tuesday, the agency said the driver of the 2011 Peterbilt semi was from El Centro, Calif. “At this time it is unknown if alcohol and drugs were a factor in the collision and if seat belts were worn,” the report said.

The vehicle belonged to Havens and Sons Trucking Inc. of El Centro. Multiple calls to the local business went unanswered.

Late Tuesday afternoon, dirt mounds en route to the grisly accident scene were dotted with small, colorful crosses — burnt orange, yellow and green. Immigrant rights organizer Hugo Castro began placing the memorials about 200 yards from the crash at around noon.

They were inscribed in Spanish with various pleas: Help for immigrants. Justice and love. No more deaths.

The 49-year-old brought 40 of them with him from Calexico. He said they were made by migrant workers deported over the last few years or refugees waiting in Mexico to hear about their respective asylum cases. Castro said he’s been fighting for immigrant causes since 2002 and currently runs a hostel in Tijuana for migrants called Immigrant Embassy.


“They were migrants looking for a better future and dealing with a horrible immigration system,” Castro said, switching between English and Spanish.

Castro eventually closed to within 30 feet of the mangled SUV. He took a knee, dug one cross deep into the ground and rose slowly, before exhaling and moving on to the next spot.

“Things have only gotten worse for the migrant community,” he said, “for the refugees and for those deported who give so much and get so little in return.”

Teri Figueroa, Molly O’Toole and Matthew Ormseth contributed to this report.