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What We Know About the Deadly Crash in California

The authorities in Southern California were called to the scene of a devastating crash along a state highway early Tuesday morning, finding a dozen people dead, some of whom had been thrown from an S.U.V. from the force of a collision with a tractor-trailer. They found injured survivors wandering the site, and one victim died later at a hospital.

Hours later, as helicopter footage showed the wreckage of the S.U.V. almost wrapped around the front of the truck, officials began to outline an account of what happened.

Here’s what we know so far.

Shortly after 6 a.m. local time, a maroon Ford Expedition S.U.V. and a tractor-trailer collided on a California highway, State Route 115, on the outskirts of Holtville, Calif., about 40 miles west of the Arizona border and about 12 miles from the border with Mexico. The truck was heading north on the highway when the S.U.V., traveling west, pulled in front of the truck at an intersection, officials said.

There were 25 people inside the S.U.V., Omar Watson, the chief of the California Highway Patrol’s border division, said at a news conference. When emergency crews arrived at the scene, they found 12 people dead. Some had been ejected from the S.U.V. and were on the pavement while others were inside the vehicle.

One more person died at a hospital, bringing the total fatalities to 13, two fewer than hospital officials had reported earlier on Tuesday. At least six people were taken to a hospital with injuries.

“Some of the walking wounded were able to pull themselves out of the vehicle,” Chief Watson said. “Once personnel arrived on the scene, some were wandering around and some of them had already passed away.”

Chief Watson said that investigators did not know how fast either vehicle was traveling at the time, whether the S.U.V. had stopped at a stop sign or what led to the collision. He also said that no law enforcement agencies were chasing the S.U.V. before the crash.

“We’re not sure exactly what caused the collision,” he said. “Obviously, that vehicle is not meant for that many people.”

Officer Jake Sanchez, a spokesman for California Highway Patrol, said the Ford S.U.V. had a maximum legal capacity of seven or eight people.

The authorities were still trying to identify some of the passengers in the crash by Tuesday afternoon local time, Chief Watson said. None were named publicly.

The S.U.V. driver was among the dead, Chief Watson said. According to Officer Arturo Platero of the California Highway Patrol, the driver was from Mexicali, Mexico, about 20 miles south of Holtville.

The dead ranged in ages from 20 to 55, Chief Watson said, and at least one of the injured passengers was as young as 16; the oldest was 65. He also did not identify the nationalities of those injured, but said that the authorities had reached out to the Mexican Consulate for help, and that it was not yet clear whether any of the passengers were American citizens.

Dr. Adolphe Edward, the chief executive of the El Centro medical center, said he believed that the victims were undocumented migrants. “This is a major accident with major trauma,” he said.

Macario Mora, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Yuma and El Centro, said the agency was assisting other law enforcement officials with the investigation. He said the immigration status of those in the vehicle was unknown and was still under investigation by the California Highway Patrol.

Chief Watson said the driver of the truck, which was pulling two empty containers, had “moderate” injuries and was taken to a hospital. The chief declined to identify him publicly.

Imperial Valley, where the crash occurred, is a rich agricultural region. Lettuce, leafy greens and melons all flourish in the arid climate for several months of the year. During the harvest in Holtville, a town that calls itself the “carrot capital of the world,” some 6,000 farmworkers legally cross the border each day to work in fields. Most travel in their own vehicles or cross on foot, and are met by vans or buses.

But the area is also known as a busy corridor for migrant smuggling.

Smugglers often transport large numbers of migrants in vans or S.U.V.s through the region after meeting them in remote areas once they have managed to enter the United States. Car wrecks near the border are common, but fewer have occurred during the coronavirus pandemic.

Several state agencies responded to the crash scene, including the California Highway Patrol and the El Centro Fire Department. At least one federal agency, Customs and Border Protection, also responded.

But there are many outstanding questions for law enforcement officials and others to answer, including the basics of who was in the vehicles, where they were traveling to and from, and what might have caused the crash itself. It is also unclear whether the case could become a criminal investigation or whether anyone involved could face charges.

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