SAN ANTONIO (AP) – Nine people are dead and the death toll could rise after emergency crews pulled dozens of people from a sweltering tractor-trailer found parked outside a Walmart in the midsummer Texas heat, victims of what officials said was an immigrant-smuggling attempt gone wrong.
The driver was arrested, and nearly 20 others taken from the rig were hospitalized in dire condition, many with extreme dehydration and heatstroke, officials said Sunday.
“We’re looking at a human-trafficking crime,” said San Antonio Police Chief William McManus, calling it “a horrific tragedy.”
One US official said Sunday evening that 17 of those rescued were being treated for injuries that were considered life-threatening. The official spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the information has not been publicly released.
Authorities were called to the San Antonio parking lot late Saturday or early Sunday and found eight people dead inside the truck. A ninth victim died at the hospital, said Liz Johnson, spokeswoman for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The victims “were very hot to the touch. So these people were in this trailer without any signs of any type of water,” San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood said.
Authorities would not say whether the trailer was locked when they arrived, but they said it had no working air conditioning.
It was just the latest smuggling-by-truck operation to end in tragedy. In one of the worst cases on record in the US, 19 immigrants locked inside a stifling rig died in Victoria, Texas, in 2003.
Based on initial interviews with survivors of the San Antonio tragedy, more than 100 people may have been packed into the back of the 18-wheeler at one point in its journey, ICE acting Director Thomas Homan said.
Officials said 39 people were inside when rescuers arrived, and the rest were believed to have escaped or hitched rides to their next destination.
Four of the survivors appeared to be between 10- and 17- years-old, Homan said. Investigators gave no details on where the rig began its journey or where it was headed.
But Homan said it was unlikely the truck was used to carry the immigrants across the border into the United States. He said people from Latin America who rely on smuggling networks typically cross the border on foot and are then picked up by a driver.