SAN ANTONIO — It began with a desperate request for water and a Walmart employee’s suspicions about a tractor-trailer parked outside. That led officials on Sunday to discover at least 39 people packed into a sweltering trailer, several of them on the verge of death — their skin hot to the touch, their hearts dangerously racing — and eight men already dead. Another would die later at a hospital.
Authorities think they found an immigrant smuggling operation just 2½ hours from the Mexican border that ended in what San Antonio Police Chief William McManus described as a “horrific tragedy.” The victims, as young as 15, appeared to have been loaded like cargo into a trailer without working air conditioning during the height of the Texas summer. It was unknown how long they had been in the trailer or where their journey started, but 30 of the victims were taken to area hospitals and 17 had life-threatening injuries. Federal authorities said the victims were “undocumented aliens.”
Reyna Torres, consul of Mexico, confirmed in Spanish that Mexican nationals are among those dead and in the hospitals and said the consulate is interviewing the survivors.
City Fire Chief Charles Hood said some of the victims appeared to have suffered severe heatstroke, with heart rates soaring over 130 beats per minute. In the worst cases, Hood said, “a lot of them are going to have some irreversible brain damage.”
Even more people were thought to have been inside the trailer before help arrived, police said. Survivors at six area hospitals told investigators that up to 100 individuals were originally in the tractor-trailer.
Walmart surveillance video showed cars stopping and picking up people as they exited the back of the trailer. But suspicions were not raised until an employee noticed a disoriented person, who asked for water. The employee then called police, authorities said. Then, a chaotic scene unfolded outside the Walmart on the city’s southwest side, as ambulances and police cars arrived and people were carried away, leaving behind shoes and personal belongings strewn across the asphalt and trailer floor.
The truck’s driver, identified as James M. Bradley, 60, of Clearwater, Fla., has been arrested and is expected to be charged Monday morning, said the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas.
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 attempt to elude border agents in the searing summer heat. Some try to slip through legal checkpoints undetected, while others sneak illegally across the border. Often, they are fleeing violence and poverty in Latin America, advocates say.
Many have died attempting to enter the United States, 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.
One of the deadliest smuggling operations occurred in 2003, when 19 people died after being discovered in an insulated trailer abandoned at a truck stop in Victoria, Tex. The truck driver in that case, Tyrone M. Williams, was sentenced to nearly 34 years in prison.
In San Antonio, the driver was working with Pyle Transportation, a hauling firm in Schaller, Iowa. The company’s name was emblazoned on the truck. Owner Brian Pyle said Bradley, the truck driver, 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 did not know what the man was transporting.
A woman at a Louisville address listed for Bradley declined to comment.
The tractor-trailer was found outside the Walmart about 12:30 a.m. Sunday, police said. The store, which was closed at the time, is surrounded by a heavily wooded area. Police feared that some people had fled the trailer when emergency workers arrived. A search using a police dog and a helicopter found one more victim, who was taken to a hospital.
In the morning, Margarita Balderas, 64, stopped by the Walmart on her way home from Sunday Mass. She had seen the news but was shocked to realize that the tragedy had occurred at that store.
“It makes me feel so bad. Why are they treated like that?” she said of the migrants. “They’re just trying to make a living.”
A vigil was set for Sunday night by groups that support immigrants in San Antonio.
“We’ll be praying for the survivors, praying that they are able to recover and be okay,” said Amy Fischer, policy director for RAICES, a nonprofit that provides legal services for immigrants in central Texas.
Fischer expressed concern that upon finding the victims in the trailer, San Antonio police called federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities. Police spokesman Sgt. Jesse Salame said that is standard practice for cases of international smuggling.
“We didn’t call ICE to get everybody deported. We called them because they are the investigating authority,” Salame said.
What will happen to the survivors once they are released from the hospital has not been decided.
But authorities indicated that their journey was not over.
Salame said he expects the victims to be released into ICE custody.
“They have to be turned over to the custody of somebody,” he said. “They don’t have anywhere else to go.”
Frankel and Selk reported from Washington. Jim Higdon in Louisville contributed to this report.