The maroon Ford Expedition was so heavy its wheels spun at first in the soft desert sand as it cleared a breach in the border wall. It then sped down a dirt road as Mexico disappeared in the rearview mirror. Twenty-five people held on inside, many jammed on the floor, others hunched half-standing between them.
Near the front was José Eduardo Martinez, 16, who had hitched onto the outlaw ride in hopes of joining his uncle in Utah to work construction. Crammed farther in the back, where the seats had been removed, were Zeferina Mendoza, 33, and her cousin, Rosalia Garcia Gonzalez, 34, who had leads on jobs in California’s strawberry fields. At the wheel was Jairo de Jesus Dueñas, 28, who planned to earn money to buy a car to drive for Uber in Mexico.
They made it 15 miles up a desolate country road in California’s Imperial Valley, 110 miles east of San Diego. Perhaps the driver was distracted or could not see the stop sign in the dawn light. Perhaps he did not realize how long it would take to stop a vehicle loaded with 25 people. The vehicle lurched into the path of a Peterbilt tractor-trailer rig barreling down state Route 115.
Few of the survivors have been able to describe what happened next: the crunch of metal and glass, the bodies flung dozens of feet across the pavement. Twelve people died on the spot, a 13th at a nearby hospital.