Vehicle Carrying 28 Tried To Elude Border Patrol
OTAY MESA – Twenty-one illegal immigrants were injured yesterday when one of three vans being chased by the U.S. Border Patrol overturned on state Route 905, plummeting down a 30-foot embankment and scattering passengers over a wide area.

Eight of the more seriously injured were quickly taken to four hospitals, although none of the injuries was life-threatening. Thirteen others were treated at a triage center set up on the roadway before being taken to hospitals.

The incident triggered a major emergency response from the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department and a massive snarl on freeways and roadways near the International Border.

Fifty firefighters, nine ambulances and two helicopters were dispatched to the area, east of the on-ramp to northbound Interstate 805.

“It looked like a mini war zone,” said San Diego Fire-Rescue Department spokesman Maurice Luque. “I saw people on the ground, some moaning, many bleeding. They had all sorts of injuries. Others were walking around dazed.”

The chase started about 1:30 p.m. after Border Patrol agents received a tip that a large number of illegal immigrants were climbing into three 14-passenger vans at a warehouse at La Media and Siempre Viva roads. It was the same warehouse leading to the recently discovered 2,400-foot tunnel under the U.S.-Mexico border.

One van pulled over quickly, and 35 people onboard were detained, said Border Patrol spokesman Richard Kite.

The second van tried to make a U-turn on Route 905 and was stopped after colliding with a Border Patrol vehicle and another car. Kite said 33 people were taken into custody from that van.

Border agents used a spike strip on westbound 905 to stop the third van. One or more tires were flattened, and the van careened over a guardrail and tumbled down the embankment, just east of Interstate 805.

“The van was going close to freeway speeds when the driver struck the spike strip and lost control,” said California Highway Patrol Officer Mark Gregg.

“At least one tire and possibly more were struck as the van drove along the right shoulder of Route 905,” he said. “It then rolled several times.”

Authorities said many of those in the first two vans were children. No children were among the 28 people in the van that overturned.

Border Patrol agent Raul Martinez shook his head while pondering the fate of the injured.

“You're giving all your hard-earned money to smugglers with such a horrible outcome,” he said. “We really try to educate people about this.”

Authorities said they were surprised more serious injuries didn't occur.

Four victims were taken to Scripps Mercy Hospital and each was undergoing scans to check for internal injuries, said Dr. Michael Sise, trauma director.

Sise said some of those injured were to be released last night and today. Border Patrol agents were at the hospital to interview the injured when possible.

Sise said the trauma department expected the worst when it received word of the number injured. But the van's path off Route 905 allowed it to decelerate, reducing the trauma sustained by the people inside, Sise said.

“If it had hit another vehicle, I'm certain there would have been deaths,” Sise said.

According to law enforcement reports provided to The San Diego Union-Tribune last July, immigrant smuggling was tied to more than 50 traffic accidents in San Diego and Imperial counties since 1993. More than 500 people were injured and 75 people killed.

Yesterday's collision was being investigated by the CHP.

By 3:30 p.m., the injured had been moved and eastbound Route 905 was reopened. Onlookers gawked at the spectacle of ambulances, firefighters, Highway Patrol officers, Border Patrol agents and news media.

The crumpled blue van rested for several hours after the crash in the ravine and was towed back up to the roadway about 7 p.m. The westbound lanes of 905 finally reopened just before 8 p.m.