8 Killed in Rollover in Arizona

SONOITA, AZ — Eight illegal immigrants riding in the back of an SUV were killed when the driver lost control on a remote southeastern Arizona highway and the vehicle rolled over, authorities said Sunday.

At least 27 men and women were in the Ford Excursion traveling about four miles east of Sonoita when the vehicle rolled over for an unknown reason shortly before midnight Saturday, said Officer Joy Craig of the Arizona Department of Public Safety. Most of the vehicle’s occupants were ejected during the rollover.

Authorities said all the victims are believed to be illegal immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Ecuador and Mexico. “There was no rear seat in the Ford Excursion. They stack live people, as many as they can, like stacking wood,” according to Craig.

Five survivors were airlifted to a Tucson hospital and 14 were transported via ambulance to hospitals in Tucson and Sierra Vista. Eight men treated and released from the hospitals were in the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol, agency spokesman Omar Candelaria said.

The identities of the driver, passengers and the vehicle’s owner were being withheld pending their identification and notification of relatives. Many victims did not have identification, Craig said.

The department said the cause of the SUV rollover is under investigation. Investigators have not yet been able to identify the driver, but if he survives, Craig said charges against him would be pending.

Craig said the remote area where the accident occurred is a route commonly used by those smuggling illegal immigrants into the United States. “We see the people stacked like wood frequently,” she said. “If they had had the right number of people in there and they all had their seat belts on, they may have lived.” Authorities are looking for anyone else who may be injured, she said.

Initially, Craig said there were 22 victims, but several victims fled the accident scene and sought help from businesses in the Sonoita area, saying they had been injured in the wreck. Sonoita is about 40 miles southeast of Tucson.

Attorney Commentary

Based on a preliminary analysis of this case, related to the facts listed in the above news coverage, it appears that this was a severe case of negligence on the part of the vehicle’s driver. If this Ford Excursion was in fact carrying a minimum of 23 people at the time of the rollover, there is a very strong possibility that the rollover occurred as the result of extreme overloading of both the vehicle and the tires, as well as altering the handling and suspension geometry of vehicle. Furthermore, there is a high probability that the injuries sustained in this rollover were more severe because while the vehicle was carrying at least 23 people, there was a maximum of 6 seatbelts in this Ford Excursion (rear seat had been removed). According to the report, almost all of the occupants were ejected during the rollover. Vehicle occupants who are not belted and are then ejected during the course of an SUV rollover are far more likely to suffer severe and often fatal head and neck injuries. It must also be mentioned that because of the severe degree of roof crush evident in the accident scene photograph of the Excursion, there is no guarantee that even belted occupants would not have suffered severe or fatal head and neck injuries due to the severe degree of roof pillar failure.