RIVERSIDE (Border Report) — Jose Martinez remembers the morning of March 2, 2021, when he was awakened before sunrise and told to climb into an SUV in Mexicali, Mexico.
Martinez, then 16, had been staying in a stash house for migrants south of the border waiting for his turn to cross.
He was part of a group of about two dozen migrants who were loaded onto two separate SUVs that morning.
Smugglers had cut a hole in the border barrier wide enough to allow the vehicles to drive through.
But the first vehicle broke down and caught fire.
Martinez and the others had to push it out of the way before they were all ordered to climb into the second SUV, a burgundy-colored Ford Expedition.
Crammed into the one vehicle, 24 migrants and the driver raced through the Imperial Valley, about 125 miles east of San Diego.
According to a National Transportation Safety Board report, while traveling along Norrish Road in Holtville, the driver slowed down at a stop sign, but never stopped completely, running into the path of a construction rig.
Thirteen of the migrants, including the driver of the SUV, died in the crash.
“It’s horrible they died,” said Martinez. “They were all coming here with the ‘American dream,’ as they call it. They all had the will but they just didn’t have the luck and, unfortunately, they passed away.”
During the crash, Martinez suffered serious internal and spinal injuries.
He was flown by helicopter to San Diego’s Scripps Mercy Hospital where he underwent a number of life-saving surgeries.
“It took me about five months to be able to walk again and get over my injuries,” he said.
The 18-year-old from the state of Guerrero in Mexico is now living in Riverside, California with his mother and younger brother Santiago.
“I’ve started to work, which is what I came here to do,” he said.
Martinez told Border Report he is employed at a restaurant, but can’t do heavy lifting or harder physical work because his legs still “go numb once in a while.”
He also said the injuries and surgeries he went through have weakened his body, but he still considers himself lucky.
“For me, it’s a miracle that I survived, it was bad, but I’m happy to be alive.”
Martinez’s mother Maria said her brother in Utah had arranged for smugglers to deliver her son to Los Angeles in exchange for $7,500, but the money was never paid because Jose never made it that far.
In the meantime, the young man still wants to eventually live and work with his uncle in Utah.
“I want to go to Utah, that’s where I was headed in the first place, I’d rather be over there,” said Jose.
The family is in the process of getting resident status and will remain in Southern California until they get their documents in place.
“The lawyer told us to stay here instead of going to Utah because it would be more expensive,” said Maria Martinez. “Once we get our papers we’ll go up there.”
Two years later, at the intersection where the crash took place, a small memorial is in place to honor the victims.
It has more than a dozen wooden crosses, plastic flowers, solar lights and even a few plastic flamingos.
A field worker who wanted to remain anonymous said the memorial seemed to spring up right after the crash and said he doubts anyone will ever take it down.
All the people who died were either from Mexico or Guatemala.
The driver of the construction rig was from nearby El Centro, he survived after being hospitalized briefly.