SAN ANTONIO — Police discovered a sweltering tractor-trailer packed with dozens of people outside a Walmart early Sunday morning — eight were dead already; one more person would die soon; and many more are expected to have brain damage from severe heat.
“They discovered an alien smuggling venture gone horribly wrong,” Richard L. Durbin, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, 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,” he added.
Police Chief William McManus did not go quite so far when he spoke to reporters before dawn. But he said his homicide detectives 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 35 in south San Antonio, about 2½ hours from the border with Mexico, authorities said.
Surveillance footage recorded vehicles pulling up to the truck on Saturday night, taking people from the trailer and driving away, McManus said.
But at least 39 people remained locked inside, Fire Chief Charles Hood told reporters, their hearts beating rapidly and their temperatures spiking — unless they had 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.
The back of the trailer was open by the time police arrived, shortly after midnight, a spokesman told The Washington Post.
The driver was taken into custody. Federal officials plan to file a criminal complaint against James M. Bradley Jr., 60, on Monday.
Some of the survivors ran into the surrounding trees, according to police, evading helicopters and foot patrols in the darkness. One person was later found nearby.
But many more remained in the truck, in dire need of help.
“They were very hot to the touch,” Hood said. “Each one of them had heart rates over about 130 beats per minute.”
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 in critical condition. Of those who suffered heatstrokes, “a lot of them are going to have some irreversible brain damage,” he said.
“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. A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not specify what would happen to survivors once they left the hospital.
“All custody issues are handled on a case-by-case basis,” she said.
While juveniles were initially reported among the dead, a police spokesman told The Post that the children survived.
Authorities tagged and numbered the bodies, and on Sunday they were trying to figure out their identities.
SAPD has searched woods for more people several times this AM. Canine Wylie is doing one more pic.twitter.com/vDaYeBFyEl
— Eva Ruth Moravec (@EvaRuth) July 23, 2017
A hearse pulled into the parking lot early Sunday morning, according to the San Antonio Express-News.
Walmart customers went about their shopping when the store reopened, though a large area of the parking lot remained cordoned off with police tape.
The tractor-trailer was towed away later in the morning. It advertised an Iowa company — Pyle Transportation — on the side.
Brian Pyle identified himself as the owner of the company but told The Post that the driver owned the truck, managed his own deliveries and operated largely independently from his company.
“This was his very first trip,” Pyle said. “It’s a common thing in the trucking industry … He had my name on the side, and I pay for his insurance. He makes his own decisions, buys his own fuel.”
Pyle declined to name the driver, who he said was from Louisville, and said he had no idea what the man was transporting.
While investigators did not know where the truck had driven 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 Post that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials would take over the investigation.
Here is the full statement the federal 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.
In his own statement, ICE acting director Thomas Homan wrote that he had worked on a similar case 14 years ago — in which 19 people suffocated inside an abandoned milk trailer in south Texas.
“These networks have repeatedly shown a reckless disregard for those they smuggle, as last night’s case demonstrates,” Homan wrote.
“The smugglers responsible for the incident, who showed no regard for the lives of the people they were transporting, should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Castro wrote.
A candlelight vigil was planned at a cathedral, and Mayor Ron Nirenberg offered his sympathy.
Tragedy came to our doorstep. Our city prays for the victims & families. Thank you to fire, police & EMS who provided care to the survivors.
— Mayor Ron Nirenberg (@Ron_Nirenberg) July 23, 2017
The grisly discovery in San Antonio comes as the Trump administration is calling on Congress to increase funding for border security and to expand the wall on the southern border with Mexico.
It also illuminates the extreme risks immigrants face as they try to elude border agents in the searing summer heat. Some try to slip through legal checkpoints undetected, while others sneak illegally across the border. Many are fleeing violence and poverty in Latin America, advocates say.
It is unclear whether the truck smuggled the immigrants across the border or picked them up once they had crossed into the United States. According to the Border Patrol, thousands have died trying to enter the United States from 1998 to 2016, drowning in the Rio Grande, lost in the desolate ranch lands of south Texas, or collapsing from exhaustion in the Arizona desert.
Two weeks ago, Houston police discovered 12 immigrants, including a girl, who had been locked for hours inside a sweltering box truck in a parking lot, banging for someone to rescue them. Three people were arrested. A Harris County prosecutor said the migrants were at imminent risk of death.
In May, border agents discovered 18 immigrants locked in a refrigerated produce truck, with the temperature set at 51 degrees. Passengers were from Latin America and Kosovo.
Border apprehensions hit a 17-year low after President Trump took office, but there was an uptick in June to 21,659 apprehensions from the month before, according to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol’s website.
Still, that figure is down by about 53 percent from June 2016.
Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.
This story has been updated throughout the day.
A previous version of this story quoted an ICE official as saying the death toll had risen to ten. The agency later lowered the death toll to nine.