The driver of an SUV packed with migrants stopped or slowed before getting slammed by a tractor-trailer in one of the deadliest border-related crashes in U.S. history, according to testimony released Monday.
The National Transportation Safety Board's preliminary report includes the first published account of the driver of a tractor-trailer who survived the March 2 crash in the farming community of Holtville, California, about 125 miles east of San Diego. It killed 13 of 25 people inside the 1997 Ford Expedition, including the driver.
The SUV had a stop sign, while the tractor-trailer did not. Both roads had a speed limit of 55 mph (88 kph).
“According to the truck driver, the SUV stopped or slowed to a near stop at the stop sign, then accelerated onto (State Highway 115) in front of the combination vehicle,“ the four-paragraph report said. "The driver of the combination vehicle applied the brakes and skidded until the front of his vehicle collided with the left side of the SUV."
The big rig driver's account appears to settle the question of whether the SUV driver blew through the stop sign or slowed. The crash remains under investigation.
The driver of the big rig, who is from the nearby California community of El Centro, suffered moderate injuries. The deceased were from Mexico and Guatemala.
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The Expedition is built to hold eight people safely, but smugglers are known to pack people into vehicles in extremely unsafe conditions to maximize their profits. Seats in the SUV had been removed except for those for the driver and front passenger.
A 1997 Ford Expedition can carry a maximum payload of 2,000 pounds. If it had 25 people inside, that would easily exceed the payload limit, taxing the brakes and making it tougher to steer the vehicle, Frank Borris, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Investigation, said in a recent interview.
Border Patrol surveillance video showed the Expedition and a Chevrolet Suburban drive through an opening in nearby border wall shortly before the crash. The Suburban carried 19 people and caught fire for unknown reasons on a nearby interstate after entering the U.S. All escaped the vehicle and were taken into custody.
The wall 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. Photos show a panel of eight steel poles was lifted out and left on the ground in the desert next to an old tire and other debris.
A Mexican man who is a legal permanent resident of the United States was charged with federal smuggling crimes last month and identified by a witness as overseeing transportation of migrants to stash houses, collecting payments and recruiting drivers and scouts who search for law enforcement presence.
The witness said he was offered $1,000 a person by Jose Cruz, 47, to drive 20 people through the border wall from Mexico to a stash house in Holtville, according to the complaint. The witness said he declined the offer.
It wasn't immediately known if Cruz had a lawyer who could speak on his behalf.