HOLTVILLE, Calif. — At least 13 people died after an SUV packed with dozens of passengers collided with a semitruck near the U.S.-Mexico border Tuesday, according to California Highway Patrol officials.
C alifornia H ighway P atrol 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.
Authorities, late Tuesday, said they are investigating whether human smuggling was involved.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the SUV was carrying migrants who had crossed the border, ferrying farmworkers to fields, or was being used for some other purpose.
“Special agents from Homeland Security Investigations San Diego responded … and have initiated a human smuggling investigation,” the agency said in a statement, adding that other details weren’t being released.
A preliminary report on the crash released late Tuesday 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 consulate to “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.