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SUV pulled into path of big rig in Imperial County crash that killed numerous migrants, NTSB says

First responders stand beside an SUV that was crushed by a big rig.
An SUV carrying 25 people in Holtville was struck by a big rig on March 2, killing 14 people.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The driver of an SUV crammed with 25 people pulled into the path of a big rig at an intersection in a collision that left more than a dozen people dead, according to a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board.

The burgundy Ford Expedition, designed to hold no more than eight people, was carrying three times that many when it crossed the U.S.-Mexico border before dawn on March 2 through a 10-foot breach in the boundary fence and headed toward El Centro, Calif., federal officials said. The effort is suspected to have been a human smuggling attempt.

The SUV was broadsided by a semi tractor hauling two trailers about 6:15 a.m. and pushed to the side of the road. The Ford crumpled on impact and wrapped around the massive front end of the big rig, which protruded into the driver’s side of the SUV.

The NTSB on Monday released its initial report on the collision, which killed 14 and ignited a nationwide conversation about the dangerous conditions some migrants face when entering the United States.

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Before the crash, a 2011 Peterbilt tractor-trailer was traveling north on Route 115 in Holtville, Calif., near El Centro. The state highway is a 65-mph route with no stop signs. The SUV driver, a 28-year-old man from Mexicali, Mexico, was headed west on Norrish Road, a 55-mph country road that crosses the highway, when he came to a stop sign at the intersection, investigators said.

“According to the truck driver, the SUV stopped or slowed to a near stop at the stop sign, then accelerated onto SH-115 in front of the combination vehicle,” the NTSB report says. “The driver of the combination vehicle applied the brakes and skidded until the front of his vehicle collided with the left side of the SUV.”

When first responders arrived at the intersection near the U.S.-Mexico border, bodies lay on the highway where they’d been flung by the force of an early morning collision.

The driver and front passenger were wearing seat belts, NTSB officials said. The 23 other passengers were crammed into the back of the vehicle, where all the seats had been removed.

“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 at the time of the crash. “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.”

The impact of the collision crushed the SUV, and 11 passengers were ejected, according to the NTSB report. The driver and 13 others were killed. The California Highway Patrol, which responded to the crash, initially reported that 12 people died at the scene and one passenger died after being transferred to a hospital.

Everyone else — including the 68-year-old big rig driver from El Centro — was injured and taken to hospitals for treatment.

The SUV’s occupants ranged in age from 15 to 53. At least 10 of the dead were Mexican nationals, said Roberto Velasco Álvarez, who heads the North America Department for the Mexican Foreign Ministry.

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Three Guatemalan nationals were also in the vehicle: a 23-year-old woman, who was killed; her 46-year-old mother, who was injured; and a 22-year-old woman, who was injured.

Omar Watson, chief of the CHP’s Border Division, described the crash scene as “chaotic.” Officers found ejected passengers on the pavement and others wandering nearby, he said. 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 injured.

Hours after the crash, 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 at the time. “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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The NTSB, CHP and other organizations continue to investigate the crash.

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents said they reviewed surveillance video and spotted the Expedition and another SUV, a red Suburban, leaving the area near the breach earlier that morning. Authorities found the Suburban engulfed in flames, its 19 occupants hiding in nearby brush.

As with the Ford Expedition, all of the Suburban’s seats were removed except the driver’s and front passenger seat, Holtville Fire Chief Alex Silva said.

“I think because of the weight of all the passengers, either the motor or transmission went out, the motor started smoking up and they pulled over to the side of the road. Everybody got out,” Silva said at the time.

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Authorities arrested Jose Cruz Noguez — a 47-year-old resident of Mexicali who was suspected of orchestrating the border crossing that led to the crash — on human smuggling charges last month.

Times staff writers Andrew J. Campa, Ruben Vives and Brittny Mejia contributed to this report.


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