Police looking at a human trafficking crime after driver arested, as Walmart CCTV footage shows vehicles picking up other people from tractor-trailer
At least nine people died after being crammed into a sweltering tractor-trailer found parked outside a Walmart in the midsummer Texas heat, authorities said on Sunday as they described an immigrant-smuggling attempt gone wrong.
The driver was arrested and nearly 20 others rescued from the rig were hospitalized in dire condition, many with extreme dehydration and heatstroke, officials said.
Were looking at a human-trafficking crime, San Antonio police chief William McManus said, calling the event a horrific tragedy.
Authorities were called to the San Antonio parking lot late on Saturday night or early Sunday and found eight dead inside the truck. A ninth victim died in hospital, said Liz Johnson, spokeswoman for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The victims were very hot to the touch, San Antonio fire chief Charles Hood said. So these people were in this trailer without any signs of any type of water.
It was only 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 weekend tragedy, more than 100 people may have been packed into the back of the 18-wheeler at some point in its journey, ICE acting director Thomas Homan said. Thirty-nine were inside when rescuers arrived and the rest were believed to have escaped or hitched rides to their next destination, officials said.
Some of the survivors told authorities they were from Mexico, Homan said.
Authorities did not say whether the rig was locked when they arrived, whether it was used to smuggle the occupants across the border into the US, or where it might have been headed. San Antonio is about 150 miles drive from the Mexican border.
The temperature in San Antonio reached 101F (38C) on Saturday and didnt dip below 90F (32C) until after 10pm. The trailer did not have a working air conditioning system, Hood said.
Federal prosecutors said James Mathew Bradley Jr, 60, from Clearwater, Florida, was taken into custody. No immediate charges were filed. The US Homeland Security Department stepped in to take the lead in the investigation.
Many of the victims looked to be in their 20s and 30s, and there were also apparently two school-age children, the police chief 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 on Saturday or early on Sunday, 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 of Schaller, Iowa. A company official did not immediately respond to a phone message seeking comment.