Published 8:04 PM EDT Sep 20, 2018
PHOENIX – Eight people died when two vehicles – one of them carrying several undocumented immigrants – collided head-on while traveling just south of Florence, Arizona.
The crash happened shortly before 10 p.m. MT Wednesday near milepost 122 on State Route 79, according to the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
A Chevrolet Suburban with nine people was traveling north when a Buick passenger vehicle heading south crossed the center line and struck the Suburban head-on, according to the DPS.
Authorities initially reported nine people died, but that number was later updated to eight.
Only the driver and the front-seat passenger of the Suburban were U.S. citizens; the other seven passengers were undocumented immigrants, according to the DPS.
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Six of the nine occupants in the Suburban died. The three other passengers were taken to area hospitals with serious to life-threatening injuries.
The driver and front-seat passenger in the Buick also died.
Troopers are working with Homeland Security Investigations to identify the victims.
State Route 79 through Florence for years has been known as a back route for smuggling organizations to transport groups of undocumented immigrants who recently crossed the border illegally in southern Arizona to the Phoenix area, where they are typically held in drop houses before being released or transported to cities in other states.
Smugglers use back routes to try and evade the Border Patrol and local law enforcement along major highways.
In June 2004, a 12-passenger van overloaded with at least 24 migrants blew a tire on State Route 79 about 1.5 miles south of U.S. 60 and rolled over, killing two passengers and injuring 22 others. That crash was part of a wave of vehicle crashes that year that killed at least 19 migrants.
But vehicle crashes in southern Arizona involving loads of undocumented immigrants had become less common in recent years as the flow of migrants crossing the border illegally had dropped to some of the lowest levels in decades.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in Arizona referred inquiries about the crash to DPS, which did not immediately respond to a request for additional comment. The Pinal County Sheriff's Office also did not immediately respond. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials in Arizona said they are not involved in the investigation.
The highway was reopened after 4 a.m. Thursday.
The investigation is ongoing.
Contributing: Daniel Gonzalez