BARSTOW, CALIF. — BARSTOW, Calif. -- A compact pickup truck crammed with 20 people apparently heading from Mexico to Los Angeles drifted off a freeway and crashed into a drainage culvert near here early yesterday, killing 12 passengers and sending the other eight to hospitals with serious injuries.
The California Highway Patrol said the driver apparently fell asleep at the wheel after driving all night from the Mexican border town of Nogales, Ariz.
Most of the victims were flung from the wreckage and scattered across the rock-strewn desert in what the CHP described as one of the most deadly single-vehicle accidents in the state's history.
"There were bodies on top of bodies, people in pain lying on top of people lying in pain," said motorist Robert Silver, who stopped at the crash scene moments after the accident occurred.
Of the four people who had been wedged into the cab of the rust-colored, 1981 Toyota pickup, only the driver survived. Nine of the 16 passengers in the bed of the pickup, which was covered by a camper shell, were killed.
A CHP investigator said there were so many people in the vehicle that the weight of the human cargo may have been greater than the weight of the vehicle itself. He said that, while the truck was about 1,700 pounds above the manufacturer's NTC gross vehicle weight rating, that, in itself, was not a violation of state law.
However, because a driver is responsible for the safety of his passengers, the CHP said it would charge the unidentified man behind the wheel with at least 12 counts of vehicular manslaughter.
Among the seven men and five women who died was a pregnant woman. None was immediately identified.
The CHP said the driver of the vehicle did not have a driver's license.
Joe Flanders, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said the agency would question the survivors about their immigration status after their immediate medical needs were addressed.
"The first order of business was to get them treated at hospitals," he said. "We want them in hospitals so they can get fixed up."
One survivor, Alejandro Enriquez, told the Associated Press that all 20 people were from El Salvador and had entered the United States illegally on Tuesday.