An SUV packed with 25 people pulled in front of an oncoming tractor-trailer on a two-lane highway cutting through farmland near the US-Mexico border early Tuesday, killing 13 and leaving bodies strewn across the roadway. Most of the dead were Mexicans.
When police arrived, some passengers were trying to crawl out of the crumpled SUV while others were wandering around the fields.
Twelve found dead on spot; another died at a hospital
Twelve people were found dead when first responders reached the highway. Another person died at a hospital, California Highway Patrol Chief Omar Watson said.
Roberto Velasco, Director of North American affairs for Mexico's Foreign Relations Department, confirmed Tuesday on his Twitter account that at least 10 of those killed have been identified as Mexicans. No identities have been released.
Driver of the vehicle was also among those killed
"The people in the vehicle ranged in age from 15 to 53 and were a mix of males and females," officials said. The driver was from Mexicali, Mexico, just across the border, and was among those killed.
The 69-year-old driver of the big rig, who is from nearby El Centro, was hospitalized with moderate injuries.
Middle and back seats had been removed to create space
The cause of the collision was unclear, authorities said, and it also was not immediately known why so many people were crammed into a vehicle built to hold eight people safely.
Watson said the SUV only had front seats and the middle and back seats had been removed. That allows more people to fit into the vehicle but makes it even more unsafe.
Authorities trying to confirm if SUV was carrying migrants
As the investigation unfolds, authorities will seek to answer whether the SUV was carrying migrants after they crossed the border as part of a smuggling operation, ferrying farmworkers to fields, or for some other purpose.
Macario Mora, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, said agents were not pursuing the SUV at the time of the crash, which was initially rumored.
Certain details about the SUV and tractor-trailer unknown
It was a sunny, clear morning and authorities said the tractor-trailer and its two empty containers were northbound on State Highway 115 when the SUV pulled in front of it from Norrish Road.
It's not clear if the SUV ran a stop sign or had stopped before entering the highway. It's also not yet known how fast the tractor-trailer was traveling.
The 1997 Ford Expedition exceeded payload limit
"1997 Ford Expedition can carry a maximum payload of 2,000 pounds. If it had 25 people inside, that would exceed the payload limit, which taxes the brakes and makes steering tougher," said Frank Borris, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Office of Defects Investigation.
"SUVs of that age tended to be top-heavy even without carrying a lot of weight," Borris said.