Imperial County

Family, Officials Begin to Identify Victims of Deadly Calif. Crash

Thirteen people were killed in the crash near El Centro, California, on Tuesday while 13 others were hospitalized with injuries that ranged from fractures to life-threatening head injuries

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What to Know

  • The crash was reported at about 6:30 a.m. Tuesday in Holtville, California, about 10 miles northeast of the U.S.-Mexico border crossing in Calexico and about 100 miles east of downtown San Diego.
  • A big rig and an SUV carrying 25 people crashed at an intersection for reasons still under investigation. The driver of the SUV and 12 of his passengers died in the crash.
  • The U.S. Border Patrol said the SUV drove into the U.S. through a gap cut in the border fence about 30 miles east of the crash site.

On Thursday, the California Highway Patrol released the names of the 13 people injured in a deadly crash just north of the U.S.-Mexico border earlier this week.

Thirteen others were killed in the crash. Family members of two of those who were killed have come forward to identify their loved ones. The rest have yet to be identified by family or the Imperial County Coroner’s office.

The Tuesday morning crash involved a semi-truck and a Ford Expedition SUV carrying a driver and 24 passengers. The SUV driver and 12 passengers died while the rest are being treated for moderate to severe injuries.

Deceased

  • Yesenia Cardona, 22, of Guatemala City, Guatemala.
  • Jairo Dueñas, 28, of Mexicali, Mexico.
  • The identities of the other 11 passengers killed in the crash have not been released by the Imperial County Coroner's office.

Injured

  • Rene Zelando, 30, of Nayarit, Mexico. Treated for major injuries at UC San Diego Medical Center.
  • Berti Orozco, 21, of Guatemala City, Guatemala. Treated for major injuries at UC San Diego Medical Center.
  • Zeterina Mendoza, 33, Guerrero, Mexico. Treated for major injuries at UC San Diego Medical Center.
  • Camillo Rodriguez, 44, of Santa Maria Del Oro, Mexico. Treated for major injuries at UC San Diego Medical Center.
  • A 16-year-old from Guerrero, Mexico. Treated for major injuries at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego County.
  • Berlin Cardona , 46, of Guatemala City, Guatemala. Treated for major injuries at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego County.
  • Darlin Liliana Robledo, 20, of Tapachula, Mexico. Treated for moderate injuries at El Centro Regional Medical Center in El Centro, California.
  • Avelardo Nava, 18, of Guerrero, Mexico. Treated for moderate injuries at Pioneers Memorial Hospital in Brawley, California.
  • Manuel Rufino, 39, of Oaxaca, Mexico. Treated for moderate injuries at Pioneers Memorial Hospital in Brawley, California.
  • Jorge Gutierrez Martinez, 24. Treated for major injuries at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, California.
  • Esteban Montiel, 22. Treated for major injuries at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, California.
  • "Jane Doe," 15. Treated for major injuries at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, California.

The driver of the big rig, 68-year-old Joe Beltran from El Centro, California, was treated for moderate injuries at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs.

After the crash, the Department of Homeland Security launched an investigation to determine if the SUV was tied to a human smuggling operation. On Wednesday, U.S. Border Patrol confirmed via surveillance footage that the Expedition, along with a Chevy Suburban SUV carrying 19 people, had breached the border through a gap in the fence about 30 miles east of the crash site.

The Suburban broke down on a nearby highway and all of its passengers were taken into custody by border patrol.

The Crash

The CHP and National Transportation Safety Board have yet to determine what caused the Expedition to cross into the path of the semi-truck on Route 115 in Holtville, California, about 100 miles east of Downtown San Diego.

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, told the Associated Press.

The Expedition had a driver and front passenger seat but no rear seats, leaving most of the passengers unrestrained in the back, according to CHP Chief Omar Watson.

Several of the SUV's passengers were ejected from the SUV at impact and thrown onto the highway.

Several of the injured passengers were rushed to area hospitals and later life-flighted to UC San Diego Medical Center in San Diego and Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla.

Authorities said the surviving patients' injuries ranged from fractures to life-threatening head injuries.

Authorities respond to the scene of a deadly crash involving an SUV and a big rig in Imperial County on Tuesday, March 2, 2021.
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Authorities respond to the scene of a deadly crash involving an SUV and a big rig in Imperial County on Tuesday, March 2, 2021.

What We Know About the Deceased

Yesenia Cardona
Rudy Dominguez told NBC 7 his sister Berlin Cardona, 47, and her daughter Yesenia Cardona, 22, risked their lives leaving Guatemala for the chance of a better life in the U.S.

His sister survived the crash but his niece didn't make it.

"We don’t want to die in our country," Dominguez said. "That’s why we take this type of risk."

The injured woman was taken to Scripps Mercy Hospital, where NBC 7's Melissa Adan spoke to her heartbroken brother.

Dominguez had last heard from his loved ones the day before the crash when they were in Mexicali, Mexico, the town across the border from Calexico.

He realizes his sister and niece entered the U.S. illegally, but he said they did so due to the desperation they were living with in their daily lives in Guatemala.

"We take a chance," Dominguez said. "We don’t want to die over there. We take a chance to come here and see our dream come true."

Jairo Dueñas
Sofia Castañeda had a terrible feeling her husband Jairo Dueñas, 28, was involved in the crash, and on Thursday her worst fear was realized.

"This is something I don't wish on anyone," Catsañeda told Telemundo 20.

Until she heard the news officially, Castañeda had been calling her husband's phone, hoping he'd pick up.

The couple was excited to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary in June, and Dueñas was traveling to California so they could have a grand ceremony in a church. He had also set his sites on the U.S. with the hopes of chasing the American Dream and providing a better life for his family.

The father of two worked as a baker in Mexicali. His 9-year-old son Jairo said his dad's bread is one of the things he'll miss most.

Castañeda said she has to wait longer than normal for her husband's body to be brought back to Mexicali because of the Homeland Security investigation.

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