Authorities still don’t know why the SUV was packed with 25 people early in the morning. It isn’t clear where they were going. And, ultimately, what caused the semitruck to ram into the side of the Ford Expedition at an intersection on a rural road, 10 miles north of the Mexican border.
“It would be premature of me to speculate on what happened at this collision. The important thing is that 13 people died in this crash,” said California Highway Patrol Border Division Chief Omar Watson. “We owe it to the families of those that were killed and injured as well at the public to conduct a complete and thorough investigation.”
But after a day of sifting through the aftermath of the jack-knifed semitruck smashing into the left side of the SUV, here is what we do know:
Hospital and police officials gave slightly different tallies of the injured and dead in the incident.
Judy Cruz, the managing director of the emergency room department at El Centro Regional Medical Center, said the vehicle had 28 occupants and that 15 had died.
But Watson said at a morning briefing there were 25 occupants in the Expedition and that 13 died, including the driver of the SUV. The passengers in the SUV ranged in age from 15 to 53, he said.
It isn’t yet known where all of the SUV passengers were from, as some didn’t have identification, Watson said, though he did add that the driver was from the Mexican city of Mexicali.
“We are close to the border, so we have people who come back and forth daily for work,” he said.
And the Mexican Consulate said that at least 10 of the victims were Mexican nationals.
Consulate officials said they was saddened by the news and are working to confirm the nationalities of the other three passengers.
The driver of the semitruck, who is 69, had moderate injuries. The trailers he was pulling were not loaded, Watson said.
According to authorities, police received a call about the crash at about 6:15 a.m. At the time of the crash, the semitruck was traveling north on State Road 115 and the Expedition was traveling west on Norrish Road in the Holtville area, approximately 100 miles east of San Diego, Watson said.
The semi-truck was traveling at an unknown speed when it struck the left side of the SUV.
Watson said it is unclear whether the SUV had stopped at an intersection but had entered the intersection “in front of the big rig.”
“I don’t know if they were cut out or removed, I’m not sure, but they were not in the vehicle,” Watson said. “What it indicates is that there were not enough safety belts for the passengers.”
The scene was gruesome, with some occupants ejected from the vehicle and killed, while others were found dead within the SUV, Watson said. He said 12 people died at the collision site and one person died at a hospital.
What’s next in the investigation
The injured occupants were taken to El Centro Regional Medical Center (ECRMC), Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs and Pioneers Memorial Hospital in nearby Brawley. UC San Diego Health said it received three patients transferred from ECRMC via air ambulance.
Three of the four patients being treated at Desert Regional Medical Center were in the intensive care unit, hospital director of communications Todd Burke told CNN.
At least one of the injured passengers from the SUV has been released from the hospital, Watson said.
US authorities are now working with the Mexican Consulate to determine who was in the SUV and notify their next of kin.
Special agents from the Homeland Security Investigations office in San Diego are investigating to see if human smuggling was involved, a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman told CNN in a statement.
The National Transportation Safety Board also said it will investigate the crash.
“NTSB, in concert with CHP, is conducting a safety investigation of Tuesday’s fatal crash involving an SUV and a truck near Holtville, California,” it said in a statement via Twitter.
“NTSB’s investigator-in-charge expected to arrive Wednesday, will later be joined by two other investigators.”
CNN’s Konstantin Toropin, Stella Chan, Alexandra Meeks, Steve Almasy, Priscilla Alvarez, Jaqueline Hurtado and Paul P. Murphy contributed to this report.