Outside a Walmart in San Antonio on Saturday night, authorities said, they discovered a sweltering tractor-trailer with dozens of people locked inside — eight of them dead and many more expected to have brain damage from the heat.
Juveniles appeared to be among the dead — numbered and tagged but still unidentified.
“They discovered an alien smuggling venture gone horribly wrong. Eight immigrants were found dead,” U.S. Attorney Richard Durbin wrote in a statement released by federal immigration authorities on Sunday morning. “All were victims of ruthless human smugglers indifferent to the well-being of their fragile cargo.”
Police Chief William McManus did not go quite so far when he spoke to reporters gathered before dawn. But he said his homicide detective would work with federal immigration authorities to determine “the origin of this horrific tragedy.”
The truck had no working air conditioning or signs of water as it sat in the Walmart parking lot off Interstate Highway 35 in south San Antonio, about 2½ hours from the border with Mexico, authorities said.
Surveillance footage recorded vehicles pulling up to the truck that night, taking people from the trailer and driving away, McManus said.
But at least 38 people remained locked inside, Fire Chief Charles Hood told reporters, their hearts beating rapidly and their temperatures spiking — unless they already died.
At some point, somehow, one of the passengers got out of the trailer and asked a Walmart employee for water.
The employee “came back with the water, called the police, and we found eight dead in the back of that trailer,” McManus said.
Some of the survivors ran into the surrounding trees, the police chief said, evading helicopters and foot patrols in the darkness.
But many more remained, badly needing help.
“They were very hot to the touch,” Hood said. “Each one of them had over 130 beats per minutes.”
They had been transported inside “a refrigeration truck with no refrigeration,” he told CNN. “If they were to spend another night in that environment, you’d have 38 people who would not have survived.”
As it was, Hood said, 30 were hospitalized — 17 of them in critical condition, “a lot are going to have some irreversible brain damage.”
“We flooded downtown San Antonio and our critical hospitals with patients tonight,” Hood said at the news conference.
At least two in the truck were school-age children, he said, without specifying whether they had survived.
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A hearse pulled into the parking lot Sunday morning, according to the San Antonio Express-News.
The truck and several police cars still sat outside the store, and helicopters were reported circling overhead, searching for those who escaped.
The names, origins and ages of the dead were not known, but McManus said they appeared to include “some juveniles, some adults in their 20s, 30s.”
McManus said the driver was in custody. While investigators did not yet know where the truck came from, the police chief said such operations were routine in the area — often going undiscovered in the darkness.
A San Antonio police spokesman told The Washington Post that Homeland Security would take over the investigation.
Here is the full statement the agency released from Durbin, the U.S. attorney:
San Antonio firefighters and police responded to a horrific scene this morning on the southwest side of town. They discovered an alien smuggling venture gone horribly wrong.
Eight immigrants were found dead. At least twenty more were in serious condition. All were victims of ruthless human smugglers indifferent to the well-being of their fragile cargo.
The South Texas heat is punishing this time of year. These people were helpless in the hands of their transporters. Imagine their suffering, trapped in a stifling trailer in 100-plus degree heat.
The driver is in custody and will be charged. We will work with the Homeland Security Investigations and the local responders to identify those who were responsible for this tragedy.
A truck that was found to contain 38 suspected illegal immigrants in San Antonio. Eight of the people died at the scene. (Darren Abate/EPA)
This story has been updated.
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