SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Authorities called to a Walmart parking lot found eight people dead and 20 others in dire condition in the back of a sweltering tractor-trailer, victims of what police said Sunday was an immigrant-smuggling operation gone wrong.
The driver was arrested, officials said.
It was just the latest smuggling-by-truck attempt to end in tragedy. In one of the deadliest cases on record in the U.S., 19 immigrants locked inside a stifling rig died in Victoria, Texas, in 2003.
This time, 30 survivors were taken to the hospital, where 20 were in extremely critical or serious condition, many suffering from extreme dehydration and heatstroke. Others had lesser injuries.
“They 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 said they were investigating where the immigrants were from.
They did not say whether the rig was locked when they arrived, whether it was used to smuggle the occupants across the border into the U.S., or where it might have been headed. San Antonio is about a 150-mile (240-kilometer) drive from the Mexican border.
“We’re looking at a human-trafficking crime,” Police Chief William McManus said, adding that many of those inside the 18-wheeler appeared to be in their 20s and 30s but that there were also what appeared to be two school-age children.
He called it “a horrific tragedy.”
There was no immediate word on any charges brought against the driver, whose name was not released. The U.S. Homeland Security Department stepped in to take the lead in the investigation.
The temperature in San Antonio reached 101 degrees (38 Celsius) on Saturday and didn’t dip below 90 (32 C) until after 10 p.m. The trailer didn’t have a working air conditioning system, Hood said.
The tragedy came to light after a person from the truck approached a Walmart employee in the parking lot and asked for water late Saturday night or early Sunday morning, McManus said.
The employee gave the person water and then called police, who found the dead and the desperate inside the rig. Some of those in the truck ran into the woods, leading to a search, McManus said.
Hours later, after daybreak, a helicopter hovered over the area, and investigators were still gathering evidence from the tractor-trailer, which had an Iowa license plate and was registered to Pyle Transportation Inc. of Schaller, Iowa. The company did not immediately respond to a phone message seeking comment.
Investigators checked store surveillance video, which showed vehicles arriving and picking up people from the truck, parked in the midsummer Texas heat, authorities said.
“By any standard, the horrific crime uncovered last night ranks as a stark reminder of why human smuggling networks must be pursued, caught and punished,” Thomas Homan, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in a statement.
In the May 2003 case, the immigrants were being taken from South Texas to Houston. Prosecutors said the driver heard them begging and screaming for their lives but refused to free them. The driver was sentenced to nearly 34 years in prison.
The Border Patrol has reported at least four truck seizures this month in and around Laredo, Texas. On July 7, agents found 72 people crammed into a truck with no means of escape, the agency said. They were from Mexico, Ecuador, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Authorities in Mexico have also made a number of such discoveries over the years.
Last December, they found 110 migrants trapped and suffocating inside a truck after it crashed while speeding in the state of Veracruz. Most were from Central America, and 48 were minors. Some were injured in the crash.
Last October, also in Veracruz state, four migrants suffocated in a truck carrying 55 people.
Associated Press writers Mike Graczyk in Houston and Peter Orsi in Mexico City contributed to this report.