Mom who saw daughter die in Calif. accident recounts tragic cross-border journey

Luis Antonio Hernández, Noticias Telemundo
·4 min read

As Verlyn Cardona recovered at a hospital, she was trying to speak between sobs.

"My heart is broken," she said.

Cardona and her daughter, Yesenia, 23, were riding in the Ford Expedition truck that crashed in Southern California, leaving 13 people dead and a dozen others injured.

Yesenia was one of 13 people who died Tuesday when the van they were packed in collided with a semi-trailer truck carrying gravel in Imperial County.

The region is known to be a human smuggling route. The mother and daughter made the trip from Chiquimulilla, Guatemala, to Mexicali, Baja California, on the northern border of Mexico, with the intention of crossing into the United States.

“I noted that my girl was no longer alive. I spoke to her, touched her face, kissed her. … She did not answer me. I only saw the color of her lips, that they were purple, that her color was already pale. She did not answer me," Cardona said in an interview with Noticias Telemundo from her hospital room.

Cardona suffered a brain hemorrhage and multiple trauma to her back, chest and feet in the crash.

"I can only tell you that they were looking for the American dream," Rudi Domínguez, brother of the surviving woman and uncle of the deceased woman, told Noticias Telemundo hours after the accident. He was notified by hospital officials that he had relatives who were involved in an accident.

Domínguez told The Associated Press that Verlyn “always tried to give her daughter a better life — never imagining that the price she would pay would be this.” The family was fleeing their country's violence and hoping for better things in the U.S.

Yesenia's father, Maynor Melendrez, who immigrated to New York 15 years ago, told the AP there were "no words" to describe what happened to his daughter. She had wanted to follow in his footsteps and come to the U.S. “I couldn’t see her again, I couldn’t hug her.”

Packed in, and "we couldn't do anything"

Cardona told Telemundo she was unaware of the conditions under which the group of migrants would be taken to California. The Ford Expedition truck they boarded, originally for eight passengers, was packed with 25 people in all.

“They got us so fast [into the truck] that they put a lot of them in and just closed the door on us,” recalls Cardona. “We told them that they no longer fit, they no longer fit, and they closed the door on us and we couldn't do anything," she said. "I had two people on top of me."

According to Border Patrol videos, the Ford Expedition in which Verlyn and Yesenia Cardona were traveling, and another Suburban van, with 19 migrants on board, crossed into the United States through a hole in the border fence.

About 30 miles later, as they merged onto Interstate 115, they collided with the cargo truck. Authorities do not know if the truck stopped at a stop sign at the intersection.

The force of the crash and the lack of seat belts caused many of the passengers to fly out of the van.

Human traffickers had removed the rear seats of the Ford Expedition pickup, leaving only the driver's and front passenger seats. This is a common practice among "polleros," or smugglers, who are transporting those trying to cross the U.S. border. But it's extremely dangerous since it makes it impossible to secure passengers in the back with seat belts, leaving them more vulnerable in the event of an accident.

Cardona had a somber warning for others who were attempting to come to the U.S.

"If you're going to risk your lives, don't do it. I know that all of us at times, because of a dream, to flee violence, we do it, but we ended up in this situation we're in," Cardona said, visibly in pain as she sat in the hospital.

The victims were 15 to 55 years old. No one was unharmed, although the injuries varied greatly in severity. Ten of the deceased were Mexican nationals, according to the Mexican consulate in Calexico, California.

Cardona said she does not remember the Border Patrol or any vehicle chasing them before the crash. "We did not notice that, nor did we hear that they said they were after us," she said.

Authorities have said there were no federal agents chasing the truck.

An earlier version of this story was originally published in Noticias Telemundo.

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