‘Very sad’: At least 13 dead after truck slams into SUV carrying 25 near U.S.-Mexico border – USA TODAY

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HOLTVILLE, Calif. – At least 13 people died after an SUV packed with dozens of passengers collided with a semitruck near the U.S.-Mexican border Tuesday, according to California Highway Patrol officials.

California Highway Patrol Division Chief Omar Watson said the crash involved a big rig hauling two trailers and a Ford Expedition carrying 25 people. The big rig smashed into the side of the SUV before 6:15 a.m. PST at the intersection of State Route 115 and Norrish Road near Holtville, about 50 miles west of Arizona and 10 miles north of the border.

A preliminary report on the crash released late Tuesday night by the highway patrol said the SUV, driven by a 28-year-old resident of Mexico, “entered the intersection directly in front” of a Peterbilt truck driven by Joe Beltran, 68, of El Centro, Calif.

The truck struck the left side of the SUV, immediately killing its driver, who was not named by police. The report says it is unclear why the driver of the SUV pulled into the intersection into the path of the truck.

Beltran was taken to an area hospital with “major injuries,” the report said.

“It would be premature for me to speculate or discuss what caused this collision. What we have to keep in mind is that 13 people died in this crash,” Watson said. “It’s a very sad situation.”

Twelve people died at the scene, including the SUV driver, and one died at the hospital, Watson said. There were children in the SUV, but none of them died, he said. The ages of those involved in the crash range from 15 to 53.

Ten of the victims were Mexicans, confirmed Roberto Velasco, director of North American affairs for Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department. 

The older-model Ford Expedition SUV should fit only six people — meaning almost 20 additional passengers were unsafely riding inside at the time of the crash, he said.

“Obviously, that vehicle is not meant for that many people. It’s unfortunate that that number of people were put into that vehicle,” Watson said.

The driver of the SUV was from Mexicali, a city in northern Mexico that hugs the U.S. border near the El Centro region in California, according to CHP Officer Jake Sanchez.

Seven patients were taken to El Centro Regional Medical Center, where one person died, emergency room managing director Judy Cruz said in a Facebook Live video Tuesday. The hospital called for air support to transport several patients to other facilities, she said. 

A few patients were taken to Pioneers Memorial Hospital in Brawley, California, Cruz said. Several others were airlifted to the trauma center at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, Calif., hospital spokesperson Todd Burke said. Three were in intensive care.

By late afternoon local time, one patient had been released from one of the hospitals, Watson said. 

“The patients are, of course, going through a little bit of a difficult time as you can imagine,” said Dr. Adolphe Edward, chief executive officer at El Centro Regional Medical Center. “This is a major accident. We are taking care of them in the emergency room department.”

The California Highway Patrol worked with the Mexican consulateto “determine who exactly was in the vehicle,” Watson said. He said what’s “important to me is to make sure the families are notified and that we do a thorough investigation so that we know what the cause of the collision was.”

He said investigators were still piecing together why more than two dozen people were crammed into the vehicle, where they were coming from and where they were going. While law enforcement was still investigating what led to the crash, weather did not play a factor, Watson said. 

Watson added they did find identification for some of the passengers in the vehicle but wouldn’t say whether all were U.S. citizens. 

Investigators work the scene of a two vehicle crash that killed at least 13 people on Highway 115 near Holtville, Ca., March 2, 2021.

Watson said seats were missing from the SUV and the only ones still in the vehicle at the time of the crash were the drivers seat and the front passenger seat. 

“I don’t know if they were cut out or removed, but they were not in the vehicle,” Watson said of rear seats in the SUV.

Several passengers were ejected from SUV in the crash while several who were injured were able to pull themselves from the wreckage, Watson said. Others were still trapped when law enforcement arrived and were freed with their help. 

“It was a pretty chaotic scene,” Watson said, later adding that, “everyone in the vehicle was injured to some extent.” 

The highway is a well-traveled road, and it was expected to be closed all day, Watson said.The wreckage was at an intersection within a mostly undeveloped area of farmland, and residents from nearby communities ventured to the site Tuesday afternoon. 

Macario Mora, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection in Yuma and El Centro, said the Border Patrol was helping other law enforcement with the crash. He said the immigration status of those in the SUV was unknown and being investigated.

Authorities are working with the Mexican consulate to identify the victims.

“It was an unusual number of people in an SUV, but we don’t know who they were,” Mora said, adding that they could have been farmworkers.

A harvest is underway in the region, where farmworkers will collect most of the winter lettuce and other leafy greens eaten in the United States.

Mora told USA TODAY that CBP was at the scene to help officers investigating the accident and the agency wasn’t involved in what led to the crash. “This was not a Border Patrol pursuit,” Watson said.

As authorities were investigating the crash, Hugo Castro, 49, placed at least 20 crosses at the scene for the victims.

He said he didn’t know any of them, nor was he familiar with previous collisions at the intersection. He placed the crosses, he said, to raise awareness for immigration rights and reform.

“I know they’re human beings who deserve a better opportunity,” Castro said. “Human beings should not die for trying to be with their loved ones.”

Archival imagery from Google Maps shows at least one cross at the same intersection. At least two other fatal accidents have happened at the same location, according to the University of California-Berkeley’s Transportation Injury Mapping System.

Contributing: Emily LeCoz and Janet Loehrke, USA TODAY; Associated Press

Colin Atagi reported from Holtville for The Desert Sun. Grace Hauck reported from Chicago for USA TODAY. Christal Hayes reported from Washington, D.C. for USA TODAY. 

Law enforcement authorities work at the scene of a deadly crash involving a semitruck and an SUV in Holtville, Calif., on March 2.

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