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Crash kills 5, injures 15 after Border Patrol chases SUV

Officials are working to determine the identities of those killed and injured when Chevrolet Tahoe pursued by Border Patrol rolled over near Vail late Saturday night.

Five passengers died at the scene of the accident and 15, including the driver, were being treated for minor to life-threatening injuries, said Bart Graves, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety.

"The identities of the victims will not be known for a while principally because many people in this car had no identification at all," Gaves said. "We're in the early stages of the investigation at this time."

Of the nine patients taken to the main campus of the University of Arizona Medical Center, three were still in critical condition Monday afternoon, said spokeswoman Katie Riley. Two others had been discharged, along with all six patients taken to UAMC's south campus.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the victims included Mexican and Guatemalan nationals.

The Mexican Consulate and Guatemalan Consulate have not yet responded to requests for comment.

Wilcox Station agents attempted to stop the Tahoe as it was traveling west on Interstate 10, but the driver failed to yield and rolled on exit 281 to Highway 83, according to a statement from U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.

The Chevrolet Tahoe had 20 passengers in a vehicle built for seven or eight and the roll-over threw passengers out of the vehicle, Graves said.

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"A vehicle that overloaded is not going to perform well in terms of braking, hydraulics, everything, especially when it's going at a fair amount of speed and the driver's going to lose control of the vehicle," Graves said. "We've seen this time and time again; it is a recipe for disaster."

Smugglers often remove seats and seat belts to fit as many people as possible in the vehicle, which means passengers have no seat belt restraint or even the basic support of seats during a crash, Graves said.

"They have them lying down, so they may not be visible at all when they're going along the highway," Graves said. "No one's wearing a seatbelt, no one's in a seat, no one has any kind of restraint or support and when you have a rollover as severe as this one was there're going to be fatalities."

This makes crashes like that on Saturday especially brutal on passengers.

"Usually massive head injuries is the number one injury," said Graves. "Basically you're like a pinball bouncing around, smashing into windows and in this case the roof."

Six people were killed and nine injured when a 1996 GMC Sierra Truck carrying 15 immigrants tried to avoid law enforcement and crashed near Kingsville, Texas, on March 20.

Tucson Sector Border Patrol agents encountered endangered passengers in another suspected smuggling vehicle earlier this month when a Casa Grande Station agent near Federal Route 15 spotted a suspicious sedan traveling north and stopped it for questioning on April 13.

During the vehicle stop, the sedan burst into flames and four suspects attempted to flee the scene. Two suspects were immediately apprehended and a third returned to the scene and told agents that there were people locked in the trunk. 

Agents opened the trunk and discovered one adult and two juveniles, who were suffering from and treated for smoke inhalation. Agents also later apprehended the fourth suspect. All seven people were identified as "Mexican nationals illegally present in the U.S." and the driver faces possible prosecution. 

The Tohono O’odham Fire Department also responded to that scene and extinguished a fire that had also spread into nearby brush.

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"The smugglers don't care about the passengers at all, they care about making money off the passengers, that's why they do this," Graves said.

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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U.S. Customs and Border Protection

A Casa Grande Station agent near Federal Route 15 spotted a suspicious sedan traveling north and stopped it for questioning. During the vehicle stop, the sedan burst into flames and four suspects attempted to flee the scene. Two were immediately apprehended and a third returned and told agents that there were people locked in the trunk. Agents opened the trunk and discovered one adult and two juveniles, who were suffering from and treated for smoke inhalation. Agents also later apprehended the fourth suspect. All seven people were identified as 'Mexican nationals illegally present in the U.S.' and the driver faces possible prosecution. Tohono O’odham Fire Department responded and extinguished the fire, which had also spread into nearby brush.