Two SUVs breached the U.S.-Mexico border. One erupted in fire. The other crashed, killing 13
The Ford Expedition carrying 25 people that was struck by a big rig Tuesday morning, killing 13, had crossed from Mexico after breaching a section of the border fence, federal officials said Wednesday.
Surveillance footage captured the Expedition and another SUV driving through a 10-foot gap in the metal fence near the Gordon’s Well exit, just off Interstate 8, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman said.
Both vehicles were later involved in separate traffic accidents, including the fatal crash on State Highway 115 and Norrish Road in Holtville.
California Highway Patrol Chief Omar Watson said several of the 25 people crammed into the Ford Expedition were ejected into the road. Twelve died at the scene, and another person died a short time later, he said.
All passengers from both vehicles “are suspected to have entered the U.S. illegally,” according to a Border Patrol news release.
“Human smugglers have proven time and again they have little regard for human life,” Gregory Bovino, chief patrol agent of the Border Patrol’s El Centro sector, said in a news release. “Those who may be contemplating crossing the border illegally should pause to think of the dangers that all too often end in tragedy; tragedies our Border Patrol agents and first responders are unfortunately very familiar with.”
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.”
Mario Beltran Mainero, a spokesman for the Mexican consulate in Calexico, said consular workers have been in touch with the families of six of the victims who died, in both the United States and Mexico.
The consulate is trying to determine whether the other three who died were Mexican, said Tarcisio Navarrete Montes de Oca, the consul general in Calexico.
Some of those in the accident hailed from “Southwestern Mexican states,” Montes de Oca said, adding that the consulate will help repatriate the bodies to Mexico.
At 6:05 a.m. Tuesday, Border Patrol agents discovered the hole in the border fence, then reviewed the surveillance video showing two SUVs leaving the area, according to the Border Patrol’s news release.
One of the SUVs, a red Suburban, had been found engulfed in flames on the U.S. side of the border about 10 minutes earlier. Nineteen people were hiding in the brush nearby.
At 7:11 a.m., Border Patrol agents arrived at the scene of the fatal accident involving the other SUV.
The Ford Expedition, with 25 people inside, was heading west on Norrish Road, where a stop sign marks the entrance to Highway 115. The big rig, traveling north on the highway, broadsided the smaller vehicle and pushed it to the shoulder.
The driver of the SUV, a 28-year-old man from Mexicali, was among those who died, and the big rig driver was injured.
“At this point, it is unknown whether or not the SUV stopped at the stop sign,” said Watson of the CHP. “For reasons still under investigation, the Ford Expedition entered the intersection in front of the big rig.”
Border Patrol agents were not pursuing either vehicle, the agency’s news release said.
Agents later helped the Imperial County Sheriff’s Department translate for Spanish-speaking survivors at the scene.
An ICE official said Tuesday that the agency had launched “a human smuggling investigation.”
Holtville residents Wednesday were processing the tragic events.
Gloria Mier, 74, an El Centro resident who has driven through the area near the accident many times, said she was amazed that 25 people could fit into an SUV.
“To fit that size, you’d have to hollow it out and make it like a shell and still probably stack people on top of each other,” said Mier, 74.
Mier said she has often seen people speeding through Holtville and not respecting street signs.
“They think they can beat ‘the slow trailer,’ but they forget that it’s big and heavy and once it goes, it can’t be stopped,” said her friend, Manuel Almagro, a 70-year-old Calexico resident.
Mier and Almagro were eating a McDonald’s meal about 14 miles from the crash site with another friend, Josie Llausas.
The three recalled numerous accidents in the area over the years but no fatalities.
“It’s been a long time — I don’t even know since when we’ve had this number of deaths,” said Llausas, 72, of Calexico. “This is a tragedy that is hard to understand.”
In 1974, an RV with 18 people aboard was traveling from a Border Patrol detention facility when it collided with a tractor-trailer parked on the shoulder about 50 miles west of Tuesday’s fatal accident.
Thirteen people were killed, and investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board concluded the RV “was not under the control of the driver for reasons unknown.”
Holtville Mayor Mike Goodsell said traffic in the area is slightly higher this time of year because farmworkers are harvesting winter crops, including cauliflower, iceberg lettuce and broccoli.
“People blow past those stop signs sometimes,” he said.
He said drivers on two-lane country roads roll up to a stop sign and don’t anticipate how fast traffic is moving on the highway.
City Manager Nick Wells referred to Holtville as “small town America” — the kind of place where everybody knows everybody. When news about the crash came out, he said, residents worried it might be someone they knew.
It’s common to see buses and vans transporting farmworkers at certain times of the year. Although it does not appear that those involved in the crash were farmworkers, Wells said “it doesn’t change the tragedy.”
“We don’t see this kind of tragedy in this area too often,” he said. “I don’t think human beings are fit for encountering that kind of scene.”
The city’s fire chief told Wells that some emergency workers who responded to the accident were undergoing counseling.
Times staff writers Matt Ormseth, Andrea Castillo, Molly O’Toole and Maria La Ganga contributed to this report.
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