SAN ANTONIO — Outside a Walmart in San Antonio early Sunday morning, authorities said, they discovered a sweltering tractor-trailer with dozens of people inside — eight of them dead and many more expected to have brain damage from severe heat.
“They discovered an alien smuggling venture gone horribly wrong. Eight immigrants were found dead,” Richard L. Durbin Jr., 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.”
Police Chief William McManus did not go quite so far when he spoke to reporters before dawn. But he said his homicide detective 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 38 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 truck was open by the time police arrived, shortly after midnight, a spokesman told The Washington Post. Eight inside were already dead.
The driver was taken into custody and is expected to face charges.
Some of the survivors ran into the surrounding trees, according to police, evading helicopters and foot patrols in the darkness.
But many more remained, badly needing 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.
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.
This story has been updated.