Border Patrol agents killed in truck-train wreck were helping nab drug smugglers

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by Catherine Holland and Jared Dillingham

Bio | Email | Follow: @JaredDillingham

azfamily.com

Posted on May 12, 2011 at 7:07 AM

Updated Friday, May 13 at 11:05 AM

Map: Interstate 8 and Paloma Road

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GILA BEND, Ariz. -- Two Border Patrol agents are dead after their SUV collided with a fast-moving freight train while they were helping pursue a group of marijuana smugglers Thursday morning.

The two agents have been identified as Hector Clark, 39, and Eduardo Rojas Jr., 35. Clark had been with the Border Patrol since 2001; Rojas had been an agent since 2000. Both were assigned to the Yuma Sector, where they were serving as lead Border Patrol agents.

The crash occurred shortly before 6:30 a.m. about nine miles miles west of Gila Bend, which is about 75 miles southwest of Phoenix, off westbound Interstate 8 and Paloma Road where the train tracks cross the road.

According to MCSO Detective Aaron Douglas, the 911 call came in at about 6:45 a.m.

The massive train pushed the SUV along the tracks for about a mile before coming to a stop. Aerial video from the scene showed the mangled black truck plastered to the front of the long Union Pacific freight train. The vehicle was covered by tarps.

One of the men was killed instantly. The other died a short time later.

Investigators are still trying to piece together the events and actions that led up to the fatal crash, but one said they're "mystified." The agents were driving 2 or 3 miles per hour over the tracks, and investigators don't believe their SUV stalled or was stuck.

"This investigation is in its infancy," Douglas explained. "We don't have a lot of answers to the questions that are begging to be asked. ... We haven't ruled anything out. ... There are a lot of particulars that have to be looked at."

Douglas said MCSO and the FBI will conduct concurrent investigations.

Kenneth Quillin, the supervisory Border Patrol agent for the Yuma Sector Communications Division, said Clark and Rojas were helping in the pursuit of a group of illegal immigrants carrying marijuana bales on their backs.

"They were trying to position themselves on a road to the north of the actual agents who were pushing the group," Quillin explained. It's not yet known how many agents were involved in that pursuit operation.

According to Quillin, Clark and Rojas were trying to cut off the group for the other agents on the ground.

"The group was on the south side of the tracks; the agents were on the north side," Quillin explained. "They attempted to cross over to the south side of the tracks [to cut off the group]."

Six illegal immigrants were arrested.

It believed that Clark and Rojas were driving through a marked railroad crossing when the truck was hit. While there are signs at the private crossing, there are no barriers and no flashing lights.

The 75-car three-engine train was going a little more than 60 mph, which is within Union Pacific's guidelines, when it plowed into the unmarked SUV.

"That's 4,684 tons of steel coming down the track," Douglas said.

Teachers at an elementary school less than a mile from the site of the wreck told 3TV they did not hear a thing.

According to investigators, the engineer and the conductor did see the SUV on the access road parallel to the tracks before it turned in front of the train at the crossing. They said per their guidelines, they sounded their horn as they approached the crossing.

It's not clear if the engineer slowed down or tried to stop before the wreck, nor is it known if there might have been some kind of mechanical failure with the Border Patrol SUV.

"These agents were pursuing suspected drug traffickers at the time of the accident and they died doing their job to protect U.S. citizens," said Attorney General Tom Horne in a statement released several hours after the wreck. "This tragedy is a reminder to all of us that whether they are facing down a criminal suspect with a weapon, or patrolling the highways and deserts, these law enforcement professionals encounter life-threatening dangers every day."
(Read Horne's full statement)

"This is going to be felt by all Border Patrol agents because we consider ourselves a family," Quillin said.

Clark, a native of Yuma, leaves behind a wife and two children. Rojas, who was originally from El Paso, Texas, also leaves behind a wife and two children.

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