Four patients remained hospitalized Wednesday at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, including one in critical condition, following a horrific vehicle crash on Tuesday involving an SUV packed with 25 people in Imperial County that killed 13 people and injured several others.
A tractor-trailer struck the Ford Expedition at about 6:15 a.m. at the intersection of Norrish Road and state Route 115 just north of Holtville, about 10 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, according to the California Highway Patrol.
CHP Chief Omar Watson said 13 people died due to injuries suffered in the crash — 12 on scene and another shortly after at an area hospital.
“It was a pretty chaotic scene,” he said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said Wednesday that the Expedition appeared to be one of two vehicles that entered the United States from Mexico earlier Tuesday morning through a 10-foot hole cut into the border fence.
Officials were probing whether the vehicles were part of human smuggling operation. Few other details regarding the group’s origins have been released, although officials said all the occupants are thought to be undocumented immigrants. The breach occurred about 30 miles southeast from where the Expedition crashed.
“Border Patrol is investigating the smuggling events. Further details of Border Patrol’s smuggling investigation are being withheld pending potential prosecution,” the agency said.
Prior to the crash, the group’s Ford Expedition pulled onto state Route 115 from Norrish Road and into the path of the big rig under circumstances that remain under investigation, Watson said.
It was not immediately clear if the Expedition pulled onto the roadway without stopping, or how fast the semi was traveling.
“Some people were ejected onto the pavement, onto the ground, who passed away as a result of those injuries. Other people were found deceased within the vehicle, and some of the wounded were able to pull themselves out of the vehicle,” Watson said.
The ages of the men and women traveling in the Expedition spanned from 15 to 53, according to authorities, who said the youngest person injured or killed was in their early 20s. Their injuries spanned from minor to severe. The 28-year-old driver was from Mexicali, Mexico. He was among those killed, authorities said. The tractor-trailer was driven by a 68-year-old El Centro man, who suffered injuries described as moderate.
Watson said the SUV had only front seats, with the middle and back seats removed to allow more people to fit into the vehicle.
The rig was towing two empty trailers, the chief said.
Most of the dead are from Mexico, according to Mexican officials. Their names have not been released.
Injured patients were sent to several hospitals, including treatment centers in Riverside and San Diego counties.
Four patients were airlifted to Desert Regional, two of whom were being treated in the intensive care unit as of Wednesday afternoon, according to Todd Burke, the hospital’s public information officer. One of those patients is in critical condition, while the other is stable, Burke said.
The other vehicle thought to have entered the United States through the busted out patch of border wall was a Chevrolet Suburban that caught fire at the intersection of Interstate 8 and state Route 115, also on Tuesday morning.
Border Patrol agents found 19 people hiding in the brush and “determined they had entered the country illegally through the breach in the border fence,” the agency said. The vehicle fire was reported at about 6 a.m.
“The same two vehicles in the surveillance footage match the two vehicles involved in the incident,” agency spokesman Macario Mora told City News Service.
“At no point” did Border Patrol “attempt to stop or pursue either vehicle,” the agency said.