● U.S. Homeland Security Investigations is looking into human smuggling as a link to the deadly crash that killed 13 people on Tuesday, March 2, media reports out of San Diego say
● The Mexican consulate has confirmed that two of the six survivors of the crash being treated in San Diego-area hospitals are from Guatemala, the same San Diego media reports state
● The Ford Expedition involved in the crash likely came through a hole cut into the border fence east of Calexico between Monday night, March 1, and early Tuesday morning in which two vehicles carrying numerous undocumented immigrants made their way into the country, an unnamed U.S. Customs and Border Protection source told Fox News
(STORY UPDATED at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 3)
HOLTVILLE — Thirteen people are dead ranging in ages from their early 20s to their 50s, including a 28-year-old driver from Mexicali, after an early-morning traffic collision on Tuesday, March 2, that was described as “gruesome” by Imperial County Fire Chief Alfredo Estrada.
During an afternoon press conference Tuesday at the scene of the accident on Highway 115 and Norrish Road northwest of Holtville, a California Highway Patrol official said 12 people died at the scene and one died in El Centro Regional Medical Center.
Media reports are stating that various sources have connected the crash to a human-smuggling operation that likely originated from the Ford Expedition sport-utility vehicle involved in the fatal collision having entered the United States from Mexico through a 10-foot hole cut into the border fence east of Drop 4 of the All-American Canal east of Calexico.
The incursion likely happened sometime between Monday night, March 1, and Tuesday morning, an unnamed U.S. Customs and Border Protection source told Fox News.
Although California Highway Patrol officials said on Tuesday that Border Patrol was not involved in the fatal accident, they were notified of the accident by first responders.
Border Patrol was “not looking for smugglers until they were notified about the crash by Imperial County Sheriff’s Office,” stated the CBP agent in the Fox News report.
That piece of information does sync up with the information shared with this newspaper late Tuesday night by a California Highway Patrol officer at the scene of the Norrish and 115 crash.
That CHP officer responded to an incident involving a second large SUV with multiple individuals inside, also in the Holtville area, some 20 minutes before the crash was called in to Highway Patrol dispatchers.
Border Patrol agents at the scene of the first incident said vehicles had made their way into the country through a hole in the fence and that both incidents were related, the local CHP officer told the Calexico Chronicle.
Meanwhile, NBC7 in San Diego reported late Tuesday night that a special unit of agents from U.S. Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego was probing the crash as a human-smuggling case.
The Mexican consulate also confirmed to NBC7 that two of the six injured victims in the Holtville crash being treated in San Diego-area hospitals on Tuesday were from Guatemala.
Apparently the other four of the six, all of whom were being treated at either University of California Medical Center or Scripps Mercy Hospital, were not identified by their nationality due to the severity of their injuries, NBC7 reported.
Some 25 individuals in all were traveling in the Expedition when it crashed, according to the Highway Patrol.
In a press release that went out shortly after noon on Wednesday, the El Centro Sector Border Patrol acknowledged the border fence breach and its connection to both incidents on Tuesday.
At 6:05 a.m., agents reported a 10-foot breach near the Gordon’s Well exit/Schneider’s Bridge area just off Interstate 8 about 30 miles east of the Highway 115/Interstate 8 interchange, according to the release.
Within this area, the international boundary fence is a few hundred feet from Schneider’s Bridge. Border Patrol agents reported they were working border incursions to the east and west of where the hole was cut, the release stated.
Then, at 6:06 a.m., agents reviewed surveillance footage that showed images of two different vehicles leaving the area near the fence breach.
Around 6:30, according to the El Centro Sector, agents assisting with was a burning red Suburban encountered 19 individuals hiding in the brush nearby and determined they had entered the country illegally through the breach in the fence. At 7:05 a.m., Border Patrol’s assistance was requested at the site of the 115-Norrish Road crash.
Ten of the deceased were Mexican nationals, said Mario Beltran Mainero, consul for community and political affairs in Calexico.
Four of the injured victims who were hospitalized in the Imperial Valley were released on Tuesday and were not taken into custody by any local or federal authorities, Beltran said.
Additionally, the consulate’s office has been in contact with six of the families of the deceased, one of whom had family living in the San Diego region.
As of Wednesday morning, the consulate’s office did not have any information regarding any possible human-smuggling investigation that American officials may have opened into the incident.
Earlier reports on Tuesday from El Centro Regional Center placed the number of dead in the accident at 15, including 14 at the scene and one in the hospital’s emergency room. But Highway Patrol officials disputed the hospital’s information during an 11:30 a.m. press conference.
The initial facts about fatal wreck revealed that a maroon 1997 Ford Expedition and a 2011 Peterbilt tractor-trailer rig hauling two empty gravel trailers collided at the intersection of 115 and Norrish about two miles outside Holtville, which was reported to Highway Patrol’s dispatch center in El Centro at 6:15 a.m.
“I counted 12 dead on the ground. The rest were all critical who were flown out or taken by ambulance. There are two more who probably won’t make it. We could have 14 when all of this is done,” Estrada said by phone several minutes after he had left the scene earlier in the day.
Estrada said the Expedition was “T-boned” by the semi after the SUV ran the posted stop sign at the intersection, although Highway Patrol had not confirmed that Tuesday and said the investigation was ongoing.
Neither Border Patrol nor any other law enforcement was involved in the accident, said Highway Patrol Border Division Chief Omar Watson during the press conferences on Tuesday, after a reporter asked whether this was a Border Patrol pursuit turned fatal.
There was some initial confusion on Tuesday morning over when the accident was reported and what kind of vehicle was involved after a Highway Patrol traffic incident website reported a separate incident in the Holtville area just several minutes before the wreck involving a similarly sized and similarly colored SUV, a Highway Patrol officer confirmed around 8 p.m. Tuesday.
Watson said during both press conferences that it was too early to tell what exactly caused the accident, but the Expedition was heading west on Norrish when it drove into the path of the semi, which was heading north on Highway 115.
How fast the vehicles were traveling has yet to be released, Watson said.
In this incident, the 68-year-old driver of the big-rig, which was owned by Haven & Sons, sustained major but nonlife-threatening injuries in the accident and was transported to Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, where he was stable on Tuesday, Watson reported.
The semi truck driver was later identified as Joe Beltran of El Centro, according to a Highway Patrol press release sent out around 6 p.m. March 2.
Earlier reports from El Centro Regional Medical Center officials incorrectly stated that 28 individuals were inside the SUV and that “children” were involved in the accident, yet Watson clarified at the afternoon press conference that there was a 16-year-old survivor but no “young children” in the Expedition.
Late Tuesday night, other media sources were reporting that a 15-year-old was involved in the collision, and they were attributing it to Watson.
Watson on Tuesday said that the ages of the deceased ranged from 20 to 55, and the ages of the injured ranged from 16 to 55.
He added that many of the victims had been ejected onto the roadway, or were “walking wounded who pulled themselves from the vehicle.”
Some of the injured were extricated from the SUV by first responders, Watson added.
The Highway Patrol’s Multi-disciplinary Accident Investigative Team from the San Diego-area Border Division was on scene Tuesday, and Watson said investigators would be there through the entirety of the crash probe. The roadway was still closed as of 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, and Watson said earlier in the day that he had no idea how long the road would remain closed to traffic.
Highway Patrol reported that the road was cleared and open on Wednesday morning.
The remaining remnants of the crash site were seen being cleared away under the cover of darkness late Tuesday in news video taken at the scene by NBC7 of San Diego.
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Regarding the occupants of the Expedition, Watson said the driver of the SUV had been identified as a 22-year-old out of Mexicali, and he died at the scene.
Many of the occupants of the Expedition did not speak English, and Watson said on Tuesday that it was not known whether they were undocumented immigrants or farm laborers. He added that the Mexican consulate had been brought in to help notify families and determine where the victims were from.
Identification from some of those involved in the wreck was found among the wreckage, but Watson would not say whether any of the IDs were United States documents, from Mexico, or any other country.
Media from throughout the region peppered Watson with questions regarding residency, immigration status, and whether bringing in the consulate was standard procedure in cases like this.
Watson said the identity, destination, or many facts about those involved were not known, but because of the crash site’s proximity to the border, all available resources were being utilized.
“We owe it to the families of those that were killed and injured to do a thorough investigation,” Watson said, adding later that the Highway Patrol’s focus was on the traffic-accident investigation and helping notify family members about their kin.
El Centro Regional officials held two Facebook press conferences before noon Tuesday, one in which ECRMC’s Judy Cruz, a nurse manager in the emergency department, reported that four victims in the accident were flown from the scene to Desert Regional Medical Center’s trauma unit. She added seven persons (including the individual who died at the hospital) were transported to ECRMC.
Of the six survivors sent to El Centro Regional, three were female and three were male, according to the CHP.
Three victims were also transported to Pioneers Memorial Hospital in Brawley, Cruz said.
Two of those patients were male and one was female, according to the Highway Patrol press release.
Two stabilized victims were later transferred from ECRMC to University of California Medical Center in San Diego, said ECRMC emergency department physician, Dr. Shavonne S. Borchardt, during the second Facebook Live press conference.
Watson later said that at least one victim was transported to Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego.
Dr. Borchardt reported that the patients from the collision had injuries “ranging from fractures to head injuries, life-threatening head injuries, chest injuries.”
Watson was asked the same question later in the day, but all he would say was there were “minor to very severe injuries … too many to discuss.”
At the start of the second ECRMC press conference, Dr. Edward said that a member of the Mexican consul in Calexico was at the hospital, and added that the patients in the hospital were not being referred to as “undocumented immigrants”; rather, Edward said they were just “patients.”
The implication was that these were Mexican or foreign nationals involved in the accident, although residency status was never confirmed by any official sources at the time of the press conferences. Watson would not speculate about the immigration status of those in the SUV on Tuesday, despite continued questioning to that effect.
In the early aftermath of the collision, two helicopters were filmed landing at the scene and multiple agencies could be witnessed tending to victims just after daylight hours in a Facebook Live video posted to a farmworkers group page.
Some media reports stated four helicopters were sent to the scene.
ECRMC’s Cruz said that numerous helicopters had been called to provide support.
By noon on March 2, even more helicopters descended on the crash site as news crews circled the area, sending video feeds to national media outlets broadcasting live online and on television.
News operations were on scene from all over the Southern California region, with the crash being reported on CNN, in the New York Times, and on Mexican news stations, to name just a few.
Two pieces of cellphone video were shared with this newspaper earlier in the afternoon, but the contents were too grotesque to include as part of this story.
One video was shot from a dash-mounted camera, and showed numerous bodies strewn along the roadway as the vehicle drove by the crash site.
The second video appeared to be from the cellphone of a first responder, showing law enforcement and fire crews attempting to open the doors to the Expedition. The camera pans into the SUV to find what appears to be a 16-year-old boy visibility conscious but grimacing in pain, and at least one woman, whose body was partially ejected from the Expedition, appears to be dead. Other bodies can be seen in the background.
Adding to the Confusion
A Highway Patrol officer who responded to the Norrish and 115 accident also responded to the scene of a report of a vehicle fire near westbound Interstate 8 east of Vanderlinden Road, also in the Holtville area.
In that incident, which was reported at 5:56 a.m., just a few minutes before the Norrish accident, a red GMC Yukon carrying numerous suspected undocumented immigrants caught fire and “approx 20 ppl got out of the veh” and “some were running away from the veh,” according to the CHP traffic information web page.
The Highway Patrol officer who confirmed the incident said Border Patrol was on scene and had said 20 suspected undocumented fled the area on foot. He wasn’t certain whether all of the immigrants were apprehended, but he said Border Patrol seized the vehicle.
The Highway Patrol officer added the Border Patrol at the scene informed him that the immigrants in the Yukon entered the country through a hole cut in the border fence east of Drop 4 of the All-American Canal.
Although it could not be confirmed, the officer believed the Norrish Road incident and the scene of the Yukon vehicle fire were related. Again, that could not be immediately confirmed.
Julio Morales contributed information to this story.