Thirteen people were killed and 13 others were injured when an SUV collided with a semi-truck hauling gravel near the U.S.-Mexico Border in California's Imperial County Tuesday morning, according to officials.
The crash happened around 6:30 a.m. about 10 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico Border at Calexico and about 100 miles east of San Diego, leaving behind a "chaotic" scene, according to California Highway Patrol Chief Omar Watson.
Twenty-five people between the ages 15 to 53 were inside the maroon Ford Expedition SUV when it was struck by the semi-truck hauling two trailers on state Route 115 near Norrish Road. Several people were ejected from the SUV and thrown onto the highway, Watson said.
Special agents from the Department of Homeland Security responded to the scene of the crash and initiated a human smuggling investigation. The agency did not reveal any additional details.
The SUV had a driver and front passenger seat but no rear seats, leaving most of the passengers presumably unrestrained in the back. The front passenger seat had to be cut out of the vehicle so the passengers could be extricated, according to Watson.
"At this time it is unknown whether or not the Expedition stopped at the stop sign, but it did enter the intersection in front of the big rig," Watson said.
Twelve people died at the scene, including the SUV's driver, a man from Mexicali, Mexico.
Twelve others suffered a variety of injuries, from fractures to head and chest injuries, some of which were considered life-threatening, said Judy Cruz, the emergency room director for El Centro's Central Regional Medical Center.
The semi-truck driver, a 69-year-old man from El Centro, also suffered moderate injuries and was transported to Desert Regional Medical Center for treatment.
The surviving SUV passengers were transported to El Centro Regional Medical Center, Pioneers Memorial Hospital in Brawley, California, and Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, Watson said.
"The patients are, of course, going through a little bit of a difficult time, as you can imagine," Dr. Adolf Edwards, the CEO of the Central Regional Medical Center, said. "This was a major accident, and we are taking care of them in the emergency room department."
A patient transported to El Centro Regional Medical Center later died, according to the hospital.
From area hospitals, a handful were life-flighted to other trauma centers, including four to UC San Diego Medical Center and two to Scripps Memorial Hospital, according to the CHP.
Two UC San Diego Medical Center physicians were also assisting doctors at El Centro Regional Medical Center through an affiliate program. They were helping to treat patients in the emergency department, hospital staff said.
"I want to take this time and thank the UCSD team for their quick response and for helping us with the transfers," said Edwards said.
UC San Diego Health said all patients in their care were in the trauma unit of their hospital located in the Hillcrest neighborhood of San Diego.
Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs had four patients from the crash in its care. One person was in critical condition and three were listed as stable, though the severity of their injuries was not disclosed.
Four others with minor injuries were released that night.
The events leading up to the deadly crash were not yet known. Watson said it was "premature for me to discuss or speculate what caused the collision." However, the CHP released its crash report on Tuesday night, in which it stated that, "At this time, it is unknown if alcohol or drugs were a factor in the collision and if seat belts were worn."
Watson said it was sunny and clear at the time of the wreck and that there was no indication that weather played a role in the crash. He promised a thorough investigation into the crash.
"What we have to keep in mind is that 13 people died in this crash," Watson said. "We owe it to the families and those killed and injured as well as the public to conduct a complete and thorough investigation."
CHP was working with multiple agencies at the crash, including the Holtville Fire Department, the Imperial County Sheriff's Department and the U.S. Border Patrol, which responded to render aid, CHP said.
The National Transportation Safety Board is also investigating the crash, and the Mexican Consulate is assisting CHP investigators with locating families of those who died, CHP said.
Tuesday evening, the Mexican Foreign Affairs Undersecretary confirmed 10 of the 13 who died were Mexican nationals. Investigators are still working to confirm the identities of the other three deceased victims.
Two of the seven injured patients who were transferred to San Diego hospitals were Guatemalan nationals, and three were Mexican, according to the consulate. The nationality of the other two has not been confirmed.
The Mexican Consulate said any family members who need assistance can call (760) 455-2140. Offices in San Bernardino and San Diego can help with translation services if needed, the consulate said.
Hospital staff said the nationality or citizenship status of the patients would not change their treatment.
"I also just want to address an issue up front with everybody," Edwards said. "We don’t use the term undocumented in the hospitals. To us, these folks are patients."
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