Driver slowed or stopped before crash killed 13 migrants

Testimony released Monday says 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

SAN DIEGO -- 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 (200 kilometers) 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 remain under investigation.

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 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.