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13 killed in California border crossing crash: How did it happen? Why were there 25 people in an SUV? A visual explanation

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Holtvile, Calif. — Thirteen people died after a truck slammed into an SUV packed with 25 people – many of them Mexican nationals – just before 6:15 local time Tuesday, in an accident that has shined a spotlight on immigration and border concerns. Many in the SUV are believed to have entered the U.S. that morning through a hole in a border fence.

Twelve died at the scene and one died at the hospital. Some of the survivors crawled out and others were pulled from the damaged vehicle in a chaotic scene.

The crash has raised many questions — several have been answered since early reports on Tuesday — but many yet remain. This is a visual look at the facts as we know them.

Who was involved in the SUV crash?

Those in the SUV were among 44 people who entered the U.S. through a hole cut into Southern California’s border fence, Border Patrol officials said Wednesday, and possible “smuggling” was being investigated.

Officer Omar Watson of California Highway Patrol said everyone in the SUV was injured to some extent. According to Watson, the injured and dead were a mix of women and men from 15 to 53 years old. One person was released from the hospital Tuesday.

The 69-year-old driver of the larger truck was airlifted to Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs. The 22-year-old driver of the SUV, from nearby Mexicali, Mexico, has died.

Where did the SUV come from?

Two vehicles were seen on surveillance video leaving the area of the fence hole around 6 a.m. PT Tuesday, officials said. One vehicle, a Chevrolet Suburban, carried 19 people and caught fire after entering the U.S. and traveling 30 miles to the intersection of Interstate 8 and State Route 115. All passengers escaped the vehicle and were taken into custody by Border Patrol agents.

The other vehicle, a 1997 Ford Expedition, was transporting 25 people when a big rig hit the SUV’s side at the intersection of State Route 115 and Norrish Road near Holtville, California, officials said.

Here’s how the collision occurred:

Where is Holtville, California?

A semi-truck towing a belly dump trailer was headed northbound on Route 115 before plowing into a 1997 Ford Expedition at the intersection with Norrish Road a few miles north of Holtville.

The semi crashed into the Expedition’s driver’s side as the SUV crossed over the roadway, pushing it into the shoulder. The SUV did have a stop sign, but it is unknown who had right of way, or if it stopped before crossing the highway. The big rig did not have a stop sign.

The Ford SUV that was destroyed when it crashed with a big rig sits on the side of Highway 115 near Holtville, Ca., as investigators try to determine what happened, March 2, 2021.

The Ford SUV that was destroyed when it crashed with a big rig sits on the side of Highway 115 near Holtville, Ca., as investigators try to determine what happened, March 2, 2021.
Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun

First responders arrived on the scene within 10 minutes of an initial call around 6:15 local time according to California Highway Patrol. The semi’s trailer did not appear to be loaded, which may have reduced the force of the impact.

Twelve people died on the scene and another died at the hospital.

How do you fit 25 people into an SUV?

The two back seat rows of the Expedition had been removed to accommodate the large amount of people in the vehicle, and Waston indicated an insufficient amount of safety belts were made available to passengers.

Has this happened before?

There have been multiple crashes at this intersection in the past. Previous memorials could be seen in photographs, and in Google Earth imagery of site.

Calexico resident Hugo Castro, 49, placed at least 20 crosses at the scene for the crash 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.”

Similar incidents are also described in a report on farmworkers.

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

Why did the truck crash into the SUV?

During a press conference on Tuesday, Officer Omar Watson of California Highway Patrol said it was too early to speculate about the cause of the crash.

He stated that while there were skid marks on the roadway, it is unknown whether they were related to the crash, and that weather did not appear to be a factor as the roadways were dry.

After being asked if the vehicle was chased, Watson stated that there were no law enforcement agencies involved in the incident. Border Patrol officials have since stated that they did not pursue the vehicle after it crossed the border.

A 1997 Ford Expedition can carry a maximum payload of 2,000 pounds. If it had 25 people inside, that would easily exceed the payload limit, taxing the brakes and making it tougher to steer the vehicle, Frank Borris, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Investigation told the Associated Press.

“You’re going to have extended stopping distances, delayed reactions to steering inputs and potential overreaction to any type of high-speed lane change,” said Borris, who now runs a safety consulting business.

SUVs of that age tended to be top-heavy even when not carrying a lot of weight, Borris said.

“With all of that payload above the vehicle’s center of gravity, it’s going to make it even more unstable,” he said.

Where were the victims taken?

Paramedics took 11 people to area hospitals following the collision.

Seven went to El Centro Regional Medical Center, where one of them died. The status of three of those patients wasn’t immediately available Wednesday, but the remaining three were transferred to Pioneer Memorial Hospital in Brawley.

Of those three, one was released with minor injuries while the other two were airlifted to Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego. They were to be treated for life-threatening injuries, said Karina Lopez, Pioneers public affairs liaison.

Scripps Public Relations Manager Steve Carpowich described the two victims as a woman and teen male. Both are still being treated Wednesday, but Carpowich said their conditions couldn’t be released due to patient confidentiality laws.

Four patients are being treated at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs and spokesman Todd Burke said one of them is in critical condition. The other three are in stable condition, although one of them remains in the intensive care unit.

After seeing initial reports on social media, USA TODAY reporters were able to pinpoint the likely crash location using data from ADSBexchange.com, an online community claiming the world’s largest public source of unfiltered flight data. Medical evacuation helicopters circled the area, possibly picking out a landing location. It appears that multiple flights took place between hospitals in Palm Springs and San Diego, and the crash site near Holtville, Calif.

What happens next?

Officer Watson stated he planned to meet with the NTSB, and that California Highway Patrol’s Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Teams have taken over the investigation and will see the investigation through to its conclusion and determine the cause.

Police pushed reporters back from the scene on the side of Highway 115 near Holtville, Ca., as investigators scan the area from the sky, March 2, 2021.

Police pushed reporters back from the scene on the side of Highway 115 near Holtville, Ca., as investigators scan the area from the sky, March 2, 2021.
Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun

Check here for the latest updates: ‘Smuggling’ probed: SUV in California crash entered through hole in border fence, officials say

Leer en español: 13 muertos en un accidente en el cruce fronterizo de California: ¿Por qué había 25 personas en una camioneta? Una explicación visual

Contributing: Jay Calderon and Colin Atagi/The Desert Sun in Palm Springs, Kate Cimini/The Californian, Javier Zarracina, Grace Hauck, Susan Miller, Mike James, Emily LeCoz, Karina Zaiets/USA TODAY.

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