At least 13 killed in crash of SUV carrying over two dozen near US-Mexico border

Los Angeles: A collision between a big rig and an SUV carrying more than two dozen people near the US-Mexico border Tuesday morning killed at least 13 and injured several others, officials said.

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Both the number of people travelling in the SUV and the number of victims was unclear. Judy Cruz, the emergency department director at El Centro Regional Medical Centre, said 28 people were in the vehicle.

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But Arturo Platero, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol’s El Centro office, said there were 25 people inside the Ford Expedition SUV, which is built for seven or eight travellers. He said the vehicle was carrying at least one teenager.

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Hospital authorities initially reported that 14 people died at the scene, but CHP officials later said 12 people died there, and another died at El Centro Regional Medical Centre.

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Four people were airlifted by helicopter to the Desert Regional Medical Centre in Palm Springs, including the big rig driver, Platero said. Three of them are in intensive care, hospital public information officer Todd Burke said.

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Three people were transported to Pioneers Memorial Hospital in Brawley, about 32km away, and six more were being treated at El Centro Regional, Cruz said.

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“The patients are, of course, going through a little bit of a difficult time,” said Adolphe Edward, chief executive of El Centro Regional. “This was a major accident, and we are taking care of them in the emergency room department.”

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CHP officials said the people inside the vehicle ranged in age from 16 to 55.

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Photos from the scene show a burgundy SUV, with the driver’s side wrapped around the front of the big rig that was hauling two trailers. The SUV’s windshield is shattered, and debris is scattered on the ground around the two vehicles.

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Passengers ejected

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Several of the passengers were ejected onto the roadway in the collision, CHP officials said.

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Dr. Shavonne Borchardt at El Centro Regional Medical Center said injuries ranged from fractures to life-threatening head and chest injuries. The hospital is transferring patients to other treatment centers as soon as they are stable, she said.

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“Our staff has done a tremendous job getting everything ready for these patients and being able to handle them and get them transferred out to the appropriate places as soon as possible, or if we can take care of them here, they’re being well taken care of as well,” Borchardt said.

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Deputy Fire Chief Sal Flores said the Imperial County Fire Department and the county’s Office of Emergency Services responded to a “mass fatality incident” at 6:16 a.m. local time.

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The SUV was headed west on Norrish Road at the intersection of State Highway 115 and “for unknown reasons” drove into the path of the big rig, which was headed north on the highway, according to CHP Officer Jake Sanchez, a spokesman for the agency’s Border Division.

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The speed limit for large trucks on that stretch of road is 88kmph, and the truck T-boned the SUV.

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“We’re not sure if the vehicle (SUV) ran the stop sign or if the vehicle stopped and entered unsafely. We’re still unsure,” Platero said.

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Fifteen first responders and five fire engines arrived at the scene just north of Holtville, Flores said.

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The El Centro Fire Department and Customs and Border Patrol officers also assisted the Imperial County Sheriff’s Office at the scene.

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Highway 115 is currently blocked heading north from Holtville, Flores said.

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Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she was “heartbroken” to learn of the fatal crash.

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“My office is closely monitoring the situation as we learn more about this horrific crash,” Feinstein said in a statement. “My thanks to the Imperial County Fire Department and other first responders for their swift response and the various medical centers in the area that treated injured passengers.”

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Concerns over toll

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For decades, there have been concerns about the high death toll in crashes along the California-Mexico border. Many of the wrecks involve immigrants trying to cross into the US, with a significant number of crashes occurring during chases by American authorities.

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There is no evidence this collision involved a chase. Platero said, “There was not a pursuit.”

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A Los Angeles Times-ProPublica investigation in 2018 found that over a three-year period, US Border Patrol agents engaged in more than 500 pursuits in border districts in California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Of those, one in three ended in a crash. In agricultural areas of California, such as Imperial County and the Central Valley, there also have been concerns about deaths involving farmworkers packed into vehicles.

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A series of horrific crashes involving farmworkers in vans in the Central Valley sparked legislation in the early 2000s requiring vans and buses that transport nine or more workers to be equipped with passenger seat belts and receive annual safety certification from the California Highway Patrol. The laws also stepped up penalties and education programmes for growers.

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Macario Mora, a spokesman for Custom and Border Protection’s Yuma and El Centro sectors, said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times that the agency’s personnel weren’t chasing or following the SUV at the time of Tuesday’s crash but responded to the scene at the request of the Imperial County Sheriff’s Office.

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“CBP personnel were not involved in the accident,” Mora said. Although some news outlets have published information suggesting the victims’ immigration status, Mora said that was speculation and that the agency did not have those details at this time.

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“We don’t use the term undocumented in the hospitals,” Edward, the El Centro Medical CEO, said. “To us, these folks that came to us are patients.”

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