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Photo: Jerry Lara, Staff
SAN ANTONIO – A too-familiar story of heat, misery and death played out in a parking lot early Sunday when a desperate plea for help led to the discovery of immigrants – some dead and many others close to it – in the stifling trailer of an 18-wheeler likely headed to Houston.
When the 911 call came in just after midnight Saturday from a Walmart employee who had been approached by a man asking for water, police and firefighters weren’t expecting the gruesome scene they found: eight men dead in a sweltering tractor-trailer, 17 others near death and still more in severe heat distress.
“They were very hot to the touch,” said Fire Department spokesman Joe Arrington. “There’s the potential for irreversible brain damage if it’s not treated fast enough. Brain damage, organ failure and other system issues.”
One man in critical condition died later Sunday, bringing the death toll to at least nine and making it the worst such incident since 19 people suffocated in the back of a trailer at a Victoria truck stop in 2003.
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Federal authorities on Sunday charged the driver of the rig, James M. Bradley Jr., 60, of Kentucky with human trafficking for his alleged role in what U.S. Attorney Richard Durbin called “an alien smuggling venture gone horribly wrong.” Bradley was being held in a federal jail in San Antonio and is expected to make his first court appearance Monday.
Thomas Homan, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said there may have been more than 100 people in the trailer at one point, with some children as young as 10. Officers found 39 at the scene, including the nine who died. Surveillance video showed people driving up to the trailer in different vehicles several times Saturday evening and taking away some of those inside of it, officials said.
Some of the immigrants who died were from Mexico, as were some of the young survivors, according to Consul General Reyna Torres in San Antonio. A Guatemalan Foreign Ministry spokesman told media outlets that two of the survivors crossed at Laredo, where they boarded the truck that ended up in the Walmart parking lot.
Immigrants who died after being trapped inside a tractor-trailer.
Degrees the inside of truck would have felt like at 80 degrees outside.
Age of the two youngest victims who died Sunday.
July 2017: At least nine people died after they were locked in a sweltering trailer that was parked at a Walmart in southwest San Antonio; 30 survivors were taken to area hospitals, many in critical condition.
September 2015: Six died in Edna on U.S. 59 after police chased a Ford Explorer packed with 16 people, all but one of whom were here illegally.
March 2013: Seven immigrants died after a pickup carrying 15 people crashed into a security barrier at the Naval Air Station in Kingsville.
June 2012: An extended-cab pickup carrying 23 people crashed along U.S. 59, leaving at least 14 people dead near the South Texas town of Goliad.
April 2012: One person was killed and 17 were hospitalized west of La Joya when a passenger van rolled over after the driver lost control.
April 2012: Nine people were killed and seven hospitalized after a minivan driven by a suspected smuggler fleeing border agents flipped near Palmview in the Rio Grande Valley.
February 2011: A suspected immigrant smuggler died in Brooks County when a tire blew out on his pickup and it rolled. At least 10 people were ejected from the vehicle but survived.
August 2011: A Falfurrias woman was killed when an SUV loaded with immigrants crashed into her home while she slept.
February 2010: Two immigrants were killed and six injured when their vehicle rolled over during a police pursuit in Jim Wells County.
November 2008: Three immigrants were killed near Natalia after their car crashed during a police chase.
July 2007: Three people were killed after an SUV packed with 18 immigrants crashed during a police chase on the outskirts of San Antonio.
June 2007: Seven people were hospitalized after a pickup packed with 16 people crashed during a police chase on Interstate 10 in Guadalupe County.
May 2003: Nineteen people died after a truck driver abandoned a milk trailer full of dozens of immigrants outside a truck stop near Victoria. The victims – including small children – suffocated after the driver ignored their frantic banging. Prosecutors sought the death penalty for the driver, but he was sentenced to life in prison. That was overturned and he was later given a prison term of 34 years.
Immigrant advocates and critics almost immediately condemned the situation, but each painted it as a reason to support their opposing causes.
“We need a secure border and legal immigration reform so we control who enters our country and they can come here in dignity,” said Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a strong supporter of the sanctuary cities bill that allows local law officers to question detainees about their immigration status. “No one should have to risk their life, or lose it, to get here and then live in the shadows.”
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who opposes the sanctuary cities law, talked about a humanitarian response.
“As we work to coordinate a humanitarian and legal response to this terrible tragedy, I find comfort in the compassionate response of our first-responders, our local medical professionals and the outpouring of support from our community,” the mayor said. “Our response should serve as a lesson to the world that San Antonio will not turn its back on any man, woman or child in need.”
Bradley was driving for Pyle Transportation of Iowa, but the company owner said he wasn’t authorized to be carrying any cargo yet.
Brian Michael Pyle, owner of Pyle Transportation, said Bradley lived in Kentucky and was making his first trip for the company.
“This is terrible,” Pyle said of the immigrant deaths.
He said Bradley was an owner-operator with Pyle: “It’s our trailer, but his truck.”
“It’s a common thing in trucking,” Pyle added. “It had my name on the side, and I pay for his insurance. He makes his own decisions, buys his own fuel, you know.”
‘Very sad situation’
Pyle and another company official, Tom Colton, said they did not know what Bradley was hauling, but he was not authorized to be transporting any cargo.
“He gets dispatched through us, but he shouldn’t have been loaded,” Colton said, adding that Bradley had told the company he was relocating to San Antonio.
Meanwhile, Walmart spokesman Randy Hargove was quick to point out that neither Bradley nor the truck had any association with the retail giant and that store policy prohibits overnight parking in its lot.
He said the Walmart where the truck was parked closes at midnight.
“This is a very sad situation, and we’re doing everything we can to assist the authorities,” Hargrove said.
Prosecutor Durbin expressed extreme dismay.
“All were victims of ruthless human smugglers indifferent to the well-being of their fragile cargo,” Durbin said in a statement. “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 tractor-trailer was parked at a back corner of the Walmart parking lot at 8538 S. Interstate 35, near Texas 16 on the Southwest Side.
“We’re very fortunate that there weren’t 38 of these people that were all locked inside that vehicle dead,” Fire Chief Charles Hood said, noting they didn’t have any water. “The truck was loaded with people.”
San Antonio Police Chief William McManus urged residents to be vigilant.
“This is not an isolated incident,” McManus noted. “This happens quite frequently. Fortunately, we came across this one. Fortunately there are people who survived. But this happens all the time. … It happens late at night, under darkness because they don’t want to be discovered, obviously, but anybody who sees anything like this, people being transferred out of the back of a trailer or being transferred from some vehicle to another vehicle, then they need to call 911.”
No names or ages of the deceased or survivors were released Sunday; causes of death will be determined by the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office.
Officials said the trailer the immigrants were in has the capability of being refrigerated, but the cooling system wasn’t working. Experts estimate the temperature inside the closed-in trailer could have reached far beyond 100 degrees – even overnight. At just 80 degrees outside, the temperature inside a closed vehicle can reach 115 degrees in a half hour, said National Weather Service meteorologist Jason Runyen. San Antonio reached Saturday’s high of 100 degrees at 6 p.m., and the temperature remained in the 90s well into the night.
Prosecutor Durbin vowed to “work with the Homeland Security Investigations and the local responders to identify those who were responsible for this tragedy.”
‘A stark reminder’
Homan, the acting ICE director, said as long as he leads the agency, “there will be an unwavering commitment to use law enforcement assets to put an end” to smuggling.
“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,” Homan said in a statement. “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations works year-round to identify, dismantle, and disrupt the transnational criminal networks that smuggle people into and throughout the United States.
“These networks have repeatedly shown a reckless disregard for those they smuggle, as last night’s case demonstrates. I personally worked on a tragic tractor-trailer case in Victoria, Texas, in 2003 in which 19 people were killed as a result of the smugglers’ total indifference to the safety of those smuggled and to the law.”
San Antonio Express-News writers Nicole Bautista and Sergio Martinez-Beltran and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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