The California Border Patrol is reporting that the 13 people killed in the crash in Imperial County Tuesday morning were in a group of more than 40 migrants who entered the U.S. through a hole cut in the US-Mexico border fence.
Surveillance video showed a Ford Expedition and Chevrolet Suburban drive through the opening early Tuesday, Gregory Bovino, the Border Patrol’s El Centro sector chief, told The Associated Press. It is believed they were part of a migrant smuggling operation.
The Suburban carried 19 people, and it caught fire for unknown reasons on a nearby interstate after entering the U.S. All escaped the vehicle and were taken into custody by Border Patrol agents.
The opening in the fence was about 30 miles (48 kilometers) east of the crash in the heart of California’s Imperial Valley, a major farming region.
It was made of steel bollards that were built before former President Donald Trump blanketed much of the border with taller barriers that go deeper into the ground.
The horrific Tuesday morning collision killed the 22-year-old male driver of the SUV and 12 passengers.
The Mexican government said 10 of the dead were Mexican citizens and that nationalities of the three others who died has not yet been determined. The massive fatality crash was reported in Imperial County Tuesday, after a semi truck collided with an SUV.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said late Tuesday that agents in its Homeland Security Investigations unit “have initiated a human smuggling investigation (into Tuesday’s crash). The investigation is ongoing and no further details are available at this time.”
California Highway Patrol officer says the 1997 Ford Expedition had stopped at an intersection and then drove "directly into the path of the big rig."
CHP Border Division Chief Omar Watson says the force of the crash sent bodies flying out of the Ford Expedition and onto the two-lane highway. Twelve people were injured ranging from minor to severe.
According to reporting by FOX 5 in San Diego, the area became a major route for illegal border crossings in the late 1990s after heightened enforcement in San Diego pushed migrants to more remote areas.
Authorities say they're not sure where the SUV was headed and are still working to identify the victims.
The driver of the big rig is hospitalized with moderate injuries.
Officials from the Mexican Consulate and US officials are working to notify the next of kin and relatives of the survivors. Chief Watson says he is not certain at this time how many of the people inside the SUV were from the US or Mexico or some other country although ID papers for some people were found in and near the crash site.
There were children in the SUV, but officials declined to say their ages.
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.
Fifteen first responders and five fire engines arrived at the scene off Highway 115, just north of Holtville, he said. A helicopter whirred overhead as Flores responded to questions about the crash.
City News Service and Associated Press contributed to this story.